Joseph Randolph Bowers
As an area of enquiry, abnormal psychology tends to focus on mental and emotional disorders and their consequent diagnosis and treatment. Relating to Indigenous Australians, it is important to challenge the conceptual focus on a diagnostic model and the consequent focus on mental disorder treatment. Instead, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples tend to focus on the cultural and spiritual aspects of human experience.
Cultural and spiritual phenomena, including great focus on family and tribal relationships, are essential in the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. If we remember mainstream family norms at the turn of the 19th century, extended families were much more common. Children were raised by their uncles, aunts, and grandparents. The nuclear family of couple and children alone is a recent development. Indigenous culture, by comparison, maintains the centrality of familial bonds that integrates with a “national” identity. In Australia, I have found this is expressed by the sacredness of “country” as both a geophysical place and also as a spiritual space that is connected to Dreamtime within family and blood relations.
When psychologists – or for that matter, any other helping professional – approach issues of mental health and other phenomena, we need to first take note of our biased and prejudicial positions. You may say, I am not prejudiced! I don't have bias! This is a natural reaction. But when we decode the meaning of bias and prejudice, we begin to realise that our family upbringing, parental influences, sibling relationships, school experiences, learning opportunities or challenges, familial genealogy, cultural, and linguistic background all have a great part to play.
Many then ask, how are these factors important to my work today? From an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective, we say that my identity is not my own. I am my family, tribe, and nation. In other words, I am the sum total of all my experiences – but more than this, my Indigenous social being is of higher value than my identity as a person. In another way of speaking, my identity is my people and my country. Like the Australian song, “We are one, though we are many.”