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.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey