About Healing

Leaning tree by Milton Jackson, pastel on paper, 41 x 33cm, c.1949. Noel & Lily White Collection, Berndt Museum of Anthropology, The University of Western Australia [1993/0019].

Here are some important words about healing in the Social Justice Report 2008, a document by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

‘Indigenous concepts of healing are based on addressing the relationship between the spiritual, emotional and physical in a holistic manner. An essential element of Indigenous healing is recognising the interconnections between, and effects of, violence, social and economic disadvantage, racism and dispossession from land and culture on Indigenous peoples, families and communities.’ [1]

An even simpler definition is borrowed from the Canadian and Native American experience but resonates with the Australian Indigenous experience: Healing is a ‘spiritual process that includes therapeutic change and cultural renewal.’ [2]

Both of these definitions include a spiritual aspect as well as a strong cultural aspect. Spirituality is largely outside the dominant paradigm of policy makers and funding bodies in Australia, yet it is an intrinsic part of healing. Perhaps this is part of the misunderstanding and reticence of government to truly engage with Indigenous healing programs.

Without getting into a metaphysical debate, spirituality is central to healing because it is a way of expressing and accessing the deepest part of the self that has suffered and needs to be made whole again. As Professor Judy Atkinson explains:

‘People don’t come to me and say they want social or emotional well being or mental health. They say they want healing, they need something deeper that connects with their spirit.’ [3]

Grounding healing in Indigenous culture is another important aspect which distinguishes Indigenous healing from other forms of social and emotional wellbeing. This can mean connecting to traditional Indigenous spiritual stories, practices that form traditional law and connection to country, as well as locating the healing process within the Indigenous history and context. Indigenous healing, combined with its spiritual and cultural elements is about promoting wholeness and connection to move beyond the impact of the harms. As Gregory Phillips argues:

‘Healing is a process, it is not just a strategy and a nice formula of a funding program.’ [4]

‘Healing is a spiritual process that includes recovery from addiction, therapeutic change and cultural renewal. It can’t just be one, it must be all of those things.’ [5]

However, what is striking about the definitions above is how healing is different from health services, housing, aged care, or family support. These are crucial services that can help establish the foundation for healing to take place and support people during the healing process, but they are not healing in and of themselves.

Similarly, unless healing services reach the crux of therapeutic change and cultural renewal, they will not achieve their aims and could be construed as a rather cynical attempt to re-badge basic entitlements. Primary health care, housing, aged care and family support are basic services and opportunities that all Australians should be entitled to.

Social Justice Report 2008, Chapter 4: Beyond the Apology – an agenda for healing, p 152 – 153.

[1] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2004, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (2004) p 57.

[2] Gregory Phillips, ‘Healing and Public Policy’ in J Altman and M Hinkson (eds) Coercive Reconciliation (2007) p 142.

[3] Judy Atkinson, Communication with Social Justice Commissioner’s Office, 27 August 2007.

[4] Gregory Phillips, What is healing? – Appropriate public policy responses (paper for the FaHCSIA Indigenous Healing Forum Canberra, 16-17 September 2008) p 2.

[5] Gregory Phillips, What is healing? – Appropriate public policy responses (paper for the FaHCSIA Indigenous Healing Forum Canberra, 16-17 September 2008) p 7.

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