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Aboriginal men’s health the topic no one wants to discuss

It’s not easy being an Aboriginal man — nor if you’re an organisation trying to get funding to help them. Mibbinbah, the only national health charity for Aboriginal men, is struggling for survival.

It’s not easy being an Aboriginal man in Australia — nor if you’re an organisation attempting to get funding to help them.

Life expectancy for Aboriginal males is 11.5 years less than other Australian men. Two thirds of that gap is because of chronic disease — heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes — and indigenous people are more likely to struggle with two or more serious illnesses at the same time than non-indigenous people. Aboriginal people account for nearly 25% of our prison population. Statistics show that Aboriginal men under 45 are up to three times more likely to commit suicide than non-indigenous men of the same age.

Plus there’s the issue of how the media and wider community view Aboriginal males, with the focus often on violence, addiction and abuse. Aboriginal health communications specialist Alistair Harris compares the moral panic in how the recent protests in Sydney saw the whole Muslim community criticised for the actions of a few, and tells how one Aboriginal friend in Alice Springs is stared at when he takes his little daughter to the supermarket. “There’s an assumption that if he’s black and with a kid, there’s something suspicious going on,” said Harris.

Yet men’s health — both mental and physical — has only become a focus for government very recently, in policy terms, with the spotlight traditionally on women and children’s health. Aboriginal men’s health is an even more niche part of this scramble for funds. That’s been compounded by the change of state governments and belt-tightening by the federal government.

In 2010 the first National Male Health Policy was launched. The Men’s Shed programs — run by two organisations, Men’s Sheds Australia and the Australian Men’s Shed Association — receive the bulk of federal government funding of men’s health organisations, with $3.15 million allocated to the programs. A funding round of $125,00 was recently open for indigenous men’s sheds, and $150,000 has been allocated to Men’s Sheds Australia for “pit stop health checks” in indigenous communities. Whitelion also received $150,000 for a pilot program on indigenous prisoner health. The Strong Fathers, Strong Families initiative (worth $6.8 million over three years) provides training and support for Aboriginal fathers.

But the Men’s Shed program is aimed at all Australian men, not just indigenous, and the Strong Fathers, Strong Families program only applies to Aboriginal men who have young children or grandchildren.

Mibbinbah, the only national health charity for Aboriginal men, is struggling to find funding to continue its work, with chairman Rick Hayes (also a departmental head and senior lecturer of public health at Latrobe University) telling Crikey: ”If we don’t get funding in the next three months, we’ll be titrating down to keep Jack [Bulman, the organisation’s CEO] employed as long as we can without moving into insolvency.”

Since 2007 Mibbinbah has held eight national camps for Aboriginal men. It’s a health program but it focuses on spiritual, cultural and emotional wellbeing as well as physical health. Just last month nearly 100 indigenous men — a cross section of society, from public servants to men struggling with addiction and homelessness — spent five days together in Wollongong, attending workshops on prostate cancer, depression and anxiety, dental issues and cultural healing.

Some of these things that come out in these camps are really important — racism, transgenerational trauma, loss of identity and land,” Bulman told Crikey. The focus is about creating a safe space for men to be able to talk openly, away from the traditional alcohol-fuelled areas of the pub or sporting clubs.

Between camps, men talk to each other on Mibbinbah’s website and Facebook page. Mibbinbah also offers health education and training in computers. A mentoring program for young indigenous males will soon be piloted at high schools in Queensland and NSW.

Originally funded as a research project by the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health (now the Lowitja Institute), it now relies on small grants from organisations like Andrology Australia and beyondblue. Recently Bulman and his small team of part-timers were forced to downsize its offices on the Gold Coast, moving to a small space being offered by a community group for just $250 a month. The move has meant they’ve had to give up their landline and also a computer lab that was used by older members of the community.

Now we’re just hanging in there,” said Bulman. “A lot of different organisations are in the same boat.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda helped establish Mibbinbah in his role at the CRC, and has attended several of their camps — including the one last month. ”It’d be an absolute travesty if something like Mibbinbah would have to disappear,” said Gooda.

He notes that “personal, pretty touchy subjects” like bladder and bowel health issues are discussed at the camps, because the men feel comfortable. “We’re into avoidance,” said Gooda. “Aboriginal men make it an artform just about. The more men get together to talk about this stuff, the easier a whole lot of things are going to be.”

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  • 1
    iona_salt
    Posted Wednesday, 19 September 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    This symposium on sport and men’s health in Aboriginal communities might interest those interested in this topic.

    http://www.rmit.edu.au/browse;ID=ywmlij99kusoz

  • 2
    minnamurra
    Posted Wednesday, 19 September 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Yes, thank you for this important article. Australia is a dangerous place to be for Aboriginal men. There is a major tendency for them to be stereotyped, slandered, disregarded, ignored, ostracised, beaten, murdered and reviled. The overwhelming majority need all the help they can get to restore dignity and self-regard and to get their families back.

  • 3
    Christopher Nagle
    Posted Thursday, 20 September 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that Australia is a dangerous place for some aboriginal men (let’s not forget there are lots of success stories) because they dangerous to themselves and those around them. And if some of them earn themselves a lousy reputation, because they live lousy values and demonstrate lousy behavior, then it is no surprise that they sometimes get a lousy reception from the rest of us, in all our various institutional and community guises.

    If our new Somali and Sudanese brothers and sisters, whose sufferings put anything that has ever happened to aboriginal communities into a very sobering perspective, can manage to establish themselves here despite no English and not much formal education, what is the matter with some in the aboriginal community?

    It seems to me that the systematic conflation of human rights and consumer wants has created a society without boundaries, and it isn’t just indigenous communities that are suffering from this condition. In some ways it is much worse in effects than the authoritarian paternalism of the past. In this sense, the human rights conversation has not only done no good, but it seems to have made things worse. Check out the Little Children Are Sacred report in case you have any doubts on this.

    It is time to end the excuses for poor performance. If Africans, Middle Easterners, Central Asianers and Sri Lankans, many of whom come from societies convulsing with violence and egregious disadvantage, can make it in one of the most benign and opportunity rich multi-cultural experiments on the planet, then perhaps it is time to kick certain indigenous males in the bum and tell them to go and get a life, take charge of themselves and stop whingeing.

    It is time aboriginals started to make their mark, become good at things, made successful careers and become innovators and entreprenuers in the same way as our latest new arrivals. And when the excuse making stops, the success will start.
    Guaranteed.

    And spare me the accusations of racism. It’s a dirty little ideological cliche and moral evasion by people perfectly capable of doing well if they wanted to.

  • 4
    Al
    Posted Saturday, 6 October 2012 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Gee Chris, if only Aboriginal men would listen to all your pearls of wisdom; you have all the solutions they could ever need.

    I can see that your opinions are based on a broad knowledge and you have no doubt experienced many warm friendships with Aboriginal men.

    White Australia is so full of “experts on Aboriginal problems” it is amazing that our jails remain full of black men and that the great majority of Aboriginal people, from Inala and Blacktown to Mapoon and Utopia have the worst health, educational and financial indicators in the country, but then again it must be all their own fault because they continue to refuse to take the advice of Chris Nagle and all the other white experts. Shame on them!

  • 5
    Al
    Posted Saturday, 6 October 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    ….and Chris, I love all your big words bro!

  • 6
    Peter Coombes
    Posted Friday, 19 October 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    First I would like to acknowledge Cristopher Nagle,s expertise on Aboriginal men and their status in life, it is comforting to know we aboriginal men have fells such as him to stand behind us and support us in our endeavours to become better citizens in this great country of ours which I would like to also point out was stolen from the aboriginal peoples of Australia or did this so called expert of aboriginal knowledge not know this or just conveniently forget about.
    This theft of land and supression of culture is one of the many social determinants which has created the situation that aboriginal people suffer and endure today and the only way the government coulds think of resolving what has occured in the past is to continually throw buckets full of money in the hope this will passify the suffering that was perpetrated on aboriginal people across Australia such as Stealing children and segregating families and if your not sure what heading to put it under try The Stolen Generation catagory which still has a huge impact on families and individuals today. The supression of cultural traditions such as not being able to speak your own language and hunt for your food under the sufferance of white retaliation if caught i.e incarceration or death if caught practising such so called trivial traditional activities
    Having grown up with white privelege, Nagle wouldn,t know what it is like growing up as an aboriginal person whose every movement is closely monitored not only by the authorities but also by the non aboriginal community and any researcher who wants to get some form of academic acreditation at the expense of aboriginal peole.
    Yes Australia is a dangerous place for aboriginals to live in but fortunately is slowly getting better apart from lunatics like Nagle who cant see the light of day due to where their head is located, and thats placed firmly up the oraffice where the sun don,t shine.
    You say that our Somali and Sudanese brothers do better but I suggest you take a visit to Adelaide where a lot of these folk are sent to live and you will see many of them living on the streets due to the same racist beliefs of the few such as yourself who aren,t prepared to cut them some slack and give them a fair go.
    As for aboriginal people becoming achievers I also suggest you open your eyes after you have extracted your head and notice there are many achievers amongst aboriginal people. As for kicking the butts of Aboriginal people I suggest you can try kicking mine if you think you are capable of such an act but be prepared for the reaction which will come back your way which you would deserve and be totally justified

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