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Chapter 8 Section B: Aboriginal People in NSW living with mental health conditions

About this section.

Terminology varies across documents and contexts. This manual refers to First Nations people as Aboriginal people in recognition that they are the original inhabitants of NSW. The use of ‘Torres Strait Islander’ and ‘Indigenous’ is only used when quoting the Commonwealth Government.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, like other Australians, have community and family members living with mental health conditions. Different cultures have very different conceptualisations of mental health. Use of the term ‘mental health’ can act as a barrier to engaging with Aboriginal people, and the concept of ‘recovery’ is somewhat foreign to people whose perspective of mental health embraces the mind, the body and the environment as inseparable, preferring to use the term ‘social and emotional wellbeing’.

For Aboriginal people, social and emotional wellbeing includes connection to family, community, ancestry, culture, spirituality and land. Conceptualisations of mental health will differ from community to community.

Aboriginal peoples are more likely to experience disadvantage in Australian society. This is reflected in the level of poverty Aboriginal people and communities experience. They often have poor access to basic services, including health services, when compared to non-Aboriginal Australians. It can be challenging for an Aboriginal person to seek help from a mental health system that may not understand their culture, family obligations or unique community structures. If an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person has had previous negative experiences with government systems or authority figures, it may take time for that person to develop trust with a mental health professional.

This section highlights some mechanisms and services that are available to Aboriginal people that work to maximise fair access to mental health care, treatment and support in NSW.

You will find information on:

It is acknowledged that while Aboriginal communities share cultural believes, they also remain diverse and individual.

8B.1: Racial discrimination and Aboriginal people

If you are discriminated against when you are trying to access services (including health services), you can use anti-discrimination law to complain about it, possibly to get compensation, and prevent it from happening again.

If the discrimination you experience is because of your mental health condition, click here to find out more about what you can do.

If the discrimination is because you are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, this is called racial discrimination.

There are two laws that apply to racial discrimination that happens in NSW:

  • The Racial Discrimination Act 1977 (Cth) that applies to discrimination that happens anywhere in Australia, including NSW; and
  • The Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) that applies to discrimination that happens in NSW.

These laws make it unlawful to discriminate against a person because of their race in a range of areas of life, such as work, provision of goods and services, housing, access to public places and education.

There are similar laws in each state and territory, some of which are called anti-discrimination laws, others of which are called equal opportunity laws. You can find out more about these laws here.

In NSW, the Anti-Discrimination Board (ADB) investigates racial discrimination complaints made under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW), and tries to resolve such complaints by conciliation, a process which tries to reach an agreement between the person who has made the complaint and the person or organisation against whom the complaint has been made. If no agreement is reached, then the ADB may refer the matter to the Administrative and Equal Opportunity Division of the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal for determination by an independent Tribunal.

The ADB has Aboriginal Outreach Program which helps Aboriginal people deal with discrimination. This program has Aboriginal staff members and provides a culturally appropriate service. More information is available here or through the ADB’s enquiries line on 1800 670 812*.

At a national level, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is responsible for dealing with complaints of discrimination under the Racial Discrimination Act 1977 (Cth). Like the ADB, the AHRC will investigate the complaint and try to resolve such complaints by conciliating an agreement between the parties to the complaint. If an agreement cannot be reached, the person making the complaint then has the option of making an application to the Federal Circuit Court of Australia or the Federal Court of Australia for determination of the complaint.

The AHRC also has a specific race discrimination unit and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Unit that undertake policy and advocacy activities in relation to race discrimination and social justice for indigenous peoples.

Click here for information about racial discrimination from the Australian Human Rights Commission and from the Anti-Discrimination Board.

Complaints to the ADB should generally be made within twelve (12) months of the actions that you believe were unlawful discrimination. Complaints to the AHRC should generally be made six (6) months of the actions that you believe were unlawful discrimination. You should ask the ADB or AHRC for more information about the time limit for your particular complaint.

To find more information about how to seek legal assistance, click here.

*Mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.

8B.2: Considering culture in relation to Aboriginal mental health

For everyone, no matter what culture or race, good mental health and wellbeing are the result of a range of factors including a person’s social circumstances, the environment and developmental factors.

‘Social and emotional wellbeing’ is a broad concept used by many Aboriginal people which includes social, emotional, spiritual, and cultural wellbeing. The term includes the idea that that connection to land, culture, spirituality, family, history and community are important to people and can impact on their wellbeing . It also includes the idea of ‘mental health’.

Aboriginal people are more likely to experience high levels of distress, intergenerational trauma, grief and loss associated with colonisation, their dispossession (or loss) of land and from the removal of children from communities.

The over-representation of Aboriginal people in juvenile and adult correctional facilities is a reflection of the poor health, injustice and oppression, racism and social exclusion, which is still present in Australian society.

Statistics and other evidence clearly indicates that there are much higher levels of poor physical and mental health among the Aboriginal communities than in the general community across Australia.

Providing effective services to Aboriginal people requires an understanding of Aboriginal culture and service delivery that is culturally competent, sensitive and safe. The key characteristics of any program that claims to be culturally competent, sensitive and safe is that there is meaningful participation of Aboriginal people in the co-design, management, delivery and evaluation of programs and services. Ideally, Aboriginal services are run by Aboriginal staff with strong connections to the local community. Where services are run by non-Aboriginal people, they must be appropriately trained and knowledgeable to work with the local community. All staff of all services should undertake cultural competency training to build their capacity to provide appropriate assistance to Aboriginal communities and individuals.

Culturally competent services are also based on a genuine understanding of the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the impact of that history on contemporary life experiences. They recognise and work respectfully within Aboriginal community and family structures, utilising culturally appropriate access, communication methods and timeframes.

Aboriginal peoples’ mental health must be considered within a broader context of social and emotional health and wellbeing. Workers need to recognise that mental ill-health is the product of personal and cultural oppression, racism, social and environmental deprivation, violence, trauma, grief and loss.

For more information about social and emotional wellbeing, click here.

For more information about working collaboratively with Aboriginal people read MHCC’s Guide to culturally safe practice.

8B.3: Mental health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

There are specific services available to help Aboriginal people living with mental health conditions in NSW:

To find information about health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in NSW follow this link to the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW website.

If you are an Aboriginal person seeking help for mental health issues, you may wish to ask if you can bring a family member or support person to appointments with you.

8B.3.1: Aboriginal Mental Health Workers in NSW

The NSW Government’s response to the mental health needs of Aboriginal people includes having specialist Aboriginal Mental Health Workers (including specialist child and adolescent workers) employed in Community Mental Health Services and Aboriginal Medical Services.

Aboriginal Mental Health Workers work to break down barriers and increase the accessibility of mainstream mental health services for Aboriginal people and to enhance the cultural competency and cultural awareness of these services. They work alongside other mental health professionals to improve cross-cultural communication and reduce cross-cultural misunderstanding and conflict. If you want to locate an Aboriginal Mental Health Worker in your area, contact your local Community Mental Health Service or your local Aboriginal Medical Service.

Contact the Mental Health Line at 1800 011 511. It’s a 24 hour service to help you find your local community mental health service across NSW*

For other useful information click here.

Click here to read the NSW Government’s NSW Aboriginal Mental Health and Well Being Policy.

*Remember, mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.

8B.3.2: First Peoples Disability Network NSW

The First Peoples Disability Network Australia (FPDN) is a national Aboriginal and Torres Straitt Islander community managed non-government organisation that facilitates self-help, mutual support and provides systemic advocacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disability and their families and carers. The website identifies a number of other services including regional offices, rights and advocacy; disability services information/referral and other useful contacts.

Phone: (02) 9267 4195

*Mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.

8B.3.3: Aboriginal Medical Services

Aboriginal Medical Services (AMS) operate across Australia. An AMS is a health service funded mainly to provide services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals. They may be run by the NSW government or by an Aboriginal community.

Aboriginal Medical Services usually have many different health professionals, including mental health professionals. After a referral from a General Practitioner, a person can see trained psychologists, psychiatrists and/or social workers to support them and their families.

AMSs provide “715 health checks”, which are free, annual health checks for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. A Practice Nurse, Aboriginal Health Worker or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Practitioner may assist the doctor to perform this health check. The check involves measures of your health such as your blood pressure, blood sugar levels, height and weight. You might also have a blood test or urine test. It is also an opportunity to talk about the health of your family. The doctor will provide treatment, advice and follow-up as needed. These health checks are also free at bulk billing clinics. For more information, click here.

If an AMS is controlled by a local Aboriginal community via elected management boards, they are called Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Medical Services. For a list of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Medical Services in NSW, click here.

8B.3.4: Medicare Indigenous Access Program

The Medicare Indigenous Access Program provides a free-call telephone service available to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers and health workers. Staff working on the Access Line are aware of the conditions that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. You can call this line 1800 556 955* from Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 5:00 pm.

For more information about the Medicare Indigenous Access Program, click here. For more information about Medicare, click here.

8B.3.5: Closing the Gap Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme

The government pays for part of the cost of medicine for most medical conditions through the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme (PBS). If medicine you need is part of this scheme, you will still need to pay a smaller amount called a ‘co-payment’. Many PBS medicines cost much more than the co-payment, and the government pays for the remaining amount. For more information about PBS, click here.

The Closing the Gap PBS Co-payment Measure aims to reduce the cost of PBS medicines for eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with, or at risk of, chronic disease. If you are eligible and buying PBS medicines at your local pharmacy, you would pay the concessional rate rather than the same co-payment as other people. For more information about this Co-payment Measure, click here.

8B.3.6: Further resources for social and emotional wellbeing

For more information about the social and emotional wellbeing (including mental health needs) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, visit the websites below:

8B.4: Stolen Generation issues: reparation, healing and finding family

Under the Aborigines Protection Act 1909, the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board (formerly known as Aborigines Protection Board) had wide ranging control over the lives of Aboriginal people. Their powers included the ability to forcibly remove Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and place them into care under a policy of ‘assimilation’. The assimilation policy aimed to absorb Aboriginal people into white society through the removal of their children so Aboriginal people would eventually lose their identity in the wider community. This generation of impacted children and families are known as ‘the Stolen Generation’.

In 1997, the Australian Human Rights Commission reported on its National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families in a report titled Bringing Them Home. This report highlighted the tragedy of the Stolen Generation and made recommendations to address the legacy of trauma. For example, the report recognised the need to support members of the Stolen Generations to reconnect with their family and community and to re-establish links to their Aboriginal cultural heritage.

The Healing Foundation is a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation that partners with communities to address the ongoing trauma caused by actions like the forced removal of children from their families.

8B.4.1: NSW Stolen Generations Reparations Scheme

The NSW Stolen Generations Reparations Scheme started on 1 July 2017 and finishes on 30 June 2022. Reparations are a payment from the government to recognise the hurt caused when you were forcibly removed from your natural family and community. The Funeral Assistance Fund also provides one-off payments to Stolen Generations survivors to assist with the cost of funerals.

You can get reparations if, before 20 March 1969, you were removed by, or came under the care of, the Aborigines Protection or Welfare Boards. Not everyone who was removed from their families can get reparations from the Scheme – you need to have been removed before 1969. If you are not sure if you are eligible, you should speak to a lawyer.

You could get a payment of up to $75,000 and $7,000 to help pay for funeral costs.

To get the application form:

You need to give a copy of two (2) different types of identification with your application, for example a birth certificate, passport, driver’s licence, pensioner card, Medicare card, health care card or bank account card.

When you make an application, you will be asked for your permission for the Scheme’s staff to search government records on your behalf. The record search will look for evidence that you were removed, or came into the care of, the Aborigines Welfare Board before 20 March 1969.

You can apply for this scheme by yourself. If you need assistance in making an application you can formally nominate a support person, for example, a family member or friend. This will authorise Aboriginal Affairs to communicate with your support person about your application. You can also authorise more than one support person.

If you would like information or assistance from a lawyer about this scheme, click here. You could also seek legal advice about whether you are eligible for compensation for the harm that resulted from removal outside of this Scheme, through a Commonwealth redress scheme or through a common law claim for injury.

*Mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.

8B.4.2: Healing and counselling

Link Up NSW helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples find lost relatives. Their services include researching family and personal records, finding family members, organising reunions and providing holistic support and counselling.

Link Up also provides counselling, research and support services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are trying to find lost relatives or have made contact with lost relatives.

The Bringing Them Home Counselling Program provides support to people affected by the forced removal policies and practices of past governments. This includes counselling before, during and after family reunions.

Link Up can be contacted at:
Freecall: 1800 624 332*
Phone: (02) 4759 1911
Fax: (02) 4759 2607
Postal address: PO Box 185
St Marys NSW 2760
Street address: 4/2 Central Place
Ropes Crossing NSW 2760

To find out more about Social and Emotional Wellbeing Programs and to find a local Social and Emotional Wellbeing Program counsellor closest to you, follow this link to the Australian Indigenous Health InfoNet.

If you are in Coota, Kinchela, or Bomaderry, you can get in contact with survivors of these places by calling Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation on 02 9699 4119.

* Remember, mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.

8B.4.3: Access to information

8B.4.3.1: Information about past adoptions and wards of the State

Information about adoptions is available to adults who were adopted (18 years and over) and the birth parents of adults who were adopted.

This information is available from the Adoption Information Unit, NSW Communities and Justice

Phone: 1300 799 023*
Fax: (02) 9716 3400
Street address: 4-6 Cavill Avenue
Postal address: Locked Bag 4028

Former wards of the State are entitled to access documents about their period in care for free from Community Services NSW.

If you live in NSW, this can be done through your nearest Department of Community Services Centre (DCJ). Click here to find your nearest DCJ Centre.

To find out more about how DJC Services NSW can help you if you are a former ward of the State, click here.

*Mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) and to Local call numbers (numbers starting with 13 or 1300) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.

8B.4.3.2: Family Records Service

Aboriginal Affairs operates a free Family Records Service, which helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in New South Wales to access records about themselves, or their ancestors, that are held in the archive collection of the former Aborigines Welfare Board and the Chief Secretary records relating to Aboriginal affairs. The records can be from 1890 to 1969. Due to the personal and sensitive nature of information contained in these records, many of the records are closed to public access.

People can apply for free to the Family Records Service to receive copies of records about themselves or their ancestors. Applications can also be made from case workers working for Family and Community Services and service providers seeking family and community related information for state wards in their care.

You can apply to access the records of the former Aborigines Welfare Board and Chief Secretary by completing a “Finding your Mob” Personal Family History Research application form obtained through the Family Records Service.

Applicants need to provide a copy of their own birth certificate, or where not available, a copy of their driver’s licence and/or health card.

8B.4.3.3: Services that help to find family members

As well as Link Up, the Salvation Army has a Special Search Service that helps to find lost relatives who were either adopted or made wards of the State. Click here for more information about the Salvation Army’s Special Search Service.

The NSW Benevolent Society has a Post Adoption Resource Centre that provides information, counselling and a range of other services to anyone affected by adoption in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. Click here to go to the website of the Benevolent Society’s Post Adoption Resource Centre.

These services are free. There are, however, businesses that charge money to try to find lost relatives. As with other services, you should always get a quote for the likely cost before you agree to use such a service.

The Australian Institute Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Studies focuses on the diverse history, cultures and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia. They have a Family History Unit, which provides family history services for the Stolen Generations and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people generally. They have created a detailed Family History Toolkit that explains how and where you may find information about your family. They can also be contacted here if you have questions during your search for your family.

For other services where you may also find information about your family, click here.

8B.5: Legal assistance

For help with legal issues, you can contact:

  • Aboriginal Legal Service: This Aboriginal non-government organisation provides culturally appropriate information and referral, and legal advice and court representation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They assist in criminal law, children’s care and protection law, family law and civil law. Contact 1800 765 767* for police charges and court matters and 1800 733 233* for care and protection and family matters
  • Law Access NSW to find your local Community Legal Centre 1300 888 529, or
  • Legal Aid NSW 1800 793 017*.

*Mobile phone calls to freecall numbers (numbers starting with 1800) are charged to the caller at the usual mobile rate.
Updated January 30, 2015

Updated May 28, 2020