Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Gatekeepers to Mental Health Reform

A recent debate between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition was focussed on health reform including the place of the federal and state governments in improving service delivery. Both leaders failed to address or mention mental health in the debate. Mental illness and emotional distress continues to be a significant burden in individual lives, families and communities including as a cause of death by suicide. A few years ago mental health was more significantly on the political agenda with several high profile parliamentarians around the country suffering mental health problems and able express their experience. Now this focus seems to have been lost. The program I work for is only funded for another few months at this stage and includes a focus on families and children. This is an important perspective to retain in the healing of people's emotional lives and providing adequate attention to the next generation of people.
The current Australian of the Year, Patrick McGorry is a notable psychiatrist in the areas of young people's mental health and early psychosis. He is becoming outspoken about the reduced attention to mental health. It is certainly time we were much more consistently addressing this as significant human area and so today I supported a new ad campaign initiated by GetUp and involving Patrick McGorry. Please see the following link. You can donate to the ad campaign online. One wonders if despite substantial improvements the stigma of mental health is still too much for many politicians. Obviously services that respond to the needs of the body primarily will remain important but mental health is one area in which we are faced with societal issues as significant contributors to emotional distress such as violence, homelessness, sexual assault, abuse of children, substance abuse, family relationships, refugees, workplaces, lack of relationship to nature, gender issues, sexuality etc etc. We deal with the inner life of people in the area of mental health and thereby touch the inner life of the nation. This has an ineffable quality about it that is challenging to quantify and understand and support. We can touch some dark places in supporting the emotional lives of people who find themselves afflicted with such difficulties. Perhaps this is simply too hard for some politicians to provide consistent leadership around and it is easy and seemingly easier for the voters to talk solely about emergency departments and hospital infrastructure. We must however find a more holistic approach whereby the needs of the body and soul are given adequate attention in the community and in social and health services overall.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What Acknowledgement of Country Means to Me

Connecting with the land has always been important to me in some way. I grew up with a botanist father in Western Australia who was often drawing my attention to the hidden secrets of beauty and life within the bush. This was more a process of osmosis by being around someone who was able to look beyond the surface for the purposes of studying the intricacies of our flora. Sense of place was also important in as much as to be able to note the contours of the land, weather, soil, geography and how this relates to other places and how certain plants and animals might be able to survive or thrive. This background by no means leads me to claim special status but it has given me a feel for the bush, an appreciation of its sometimes harsh beauty and the importance of it's protection and care.

The practice of acknowledgement of country has also become increasingly meaningful for me as a non-Aboriginal person. For many years I have often found myself moved by Aboriginal stories of loss but also strength in the face of suffering and an ability to more forward with a new vision. I have become convinced that the practice of acknowledgement of country is an important step towards healing of the land and all its peoples. Indeed Aboriginal colleagues that I have contact with seem to a person to support it's practice. However, many people find this practice to be 'tokenism', as dismissive of other key groups in Australia or as even causing division. Such criticism was recently led by the Federal Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbot and Member of parliament Wilson Tuckey in a kind of headline grabbing way that was picked up by the media. See for example:http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/03/15/2845854.htm

Of course any practice can become 'tokenism' when it is not supported by a felt sense of meaning but we can go much further and we must because the soul of our nation depends on our attention to these matters. Australia has an opportunity given it's relatively young history since colonisation and when compared to other nations, to better overcome racial divides and wounds. My workplace which includes Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff has been supporting the practice of Acknowledgement of Country in various ways before significant meetings as part of a larger national move in this direction.

Here are some of the main reasons I support this practice:

  • An Acknowledgement of country reminds me that there are people, traditional owners, who have been here before...who lived on this land for many thousands of years before Europeans arrived and whose descendents still live here. It is a recognition of many generations which goes beyond recorded history...we do not tend to think in thousands of years very often and it is helpful to put our own lives in this perspective. I honour this timeless relationship with land.

  • The first peoples who live here seem to value the land as part of them...even as being owned by the land. Further that the land provided everything necessary. This is a real perspective and a counter-cultural view of ownership...without the land and all that it provides we are nothing so we are obliged to it...further we take the land into our bodies on a daily basis via air, food and water...we are literally part of it. I honour this Aboriginal sense of bodily intimacy with the land.

  • An Acknowledgement of country reminds us of the elders or the custodians of the land...people who care for land and culture in the past, now and the future. This can remind us of values that we dare not live without namely that ageing can bring wisdom that is worth nurturing, that care and custodianship of the land is an imperative and that generations come and go but the land remains our bedrock. I honour this wisdom in our Aboriginal brothers and sisters

Naming and claiming these things does not mean I avoid or dismiss the complexity of colonisation or of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships. Or that I cannot recognise that there are positives in the arrival of Europeans, or that there aren't conflicts within Aboriginal communities, or that we don't need to back this up with addressing the issues related to the quality of life of Aboriginal communities etc. Acknowledgement of Country is not an invitation to become simplistic in any way. Nor is it an issue of superficially thanking Aboriginal people for use of the land as indicated by Wilson Tuckey, although gratitude maybe part of our response to these issues. For me it is also acknowledging the human suffering of Aboriginal peoples and of the land and the ongoing consequences of colonisation. Once this becomes our starting point we have a more real foundation for the acknowledgment of our collective suffering and for the hope that our Australian peoples can become more loving and just in the process.

May the practice of Acknowledgement of country continue to evolve into something deep and real and meaningful.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

These Lenten Days

The Season of Lent is an intentional journey towards death guided by the Jesus story of our heritage. A decision to willingly consider and embrace suffering and death is required for this journey. The way of the cross is something we might prefer to do without and so we can engage in much avoidance. So it strikes me that lenten liturgy engages us in a process of considering our failings and our sinfulness as an element of this journey. Part of me cringes at a words like sinfulness and sin. Yet a reimagining of these words and what they point to maybe helpful if the Christian spiritual life is going to take on new and deep meaning for us. It seems to me that if sin is reduced to a moralistic behavioural code that we do or don't meet then we haven't gone far enough. Of course our human behaviour is cause for reflection and for amendment. However we do carry light and shadow together with us on a daily basis. So whatever the word 'sin' conveys perhaps it is more about the limits we place on our capacity for wholeness in which the shadow points us to the light and the light helps us embrace the shadow. Indeed the way of the cross embraces the shadow side of humanity, our violence, our existential anxiety, our power games and our avoidance. Above all it exposes the self that perceives only isolated existence and draws attention to the more subtle voices that really require our attention, namely our connection with all that is, our families, our land, humans who help us in times of need, our compassion for others and the Source who enlivens all. And so rather than specific acts that are or aren't acceptable our 'sinfulness' is really more about our mindlessness, our lack of practising 'the presence of God', and our closing down on what is real. Death and the way of the cross is the 'in-built' corrective or a central force in our human transformation.

I do not speak about these things simply as theory anymore or good ideas. They have become very real to me in this last two months with the birth and death after two and half days of our third daughter. The sheer vulnerability of a birth, a very sick baby who could not stay in this life and a dying baby have drawn me to what is real like nothing else, like no other deaths that I have experienced. For me and my family the way of the cross is not a decision this year, it has been imposed by life. A real, physical stations of the cross and a touching into the heart of the crucified one. I now carry a wound that cannot be erased and an absence of life where there would otherwise be noise and breastfeeding and touch and cuddles. John O'Donoghue says this absence of a loved one is like a tree that grows beside you. I think he is right, it has in my experience a presence all of its own. Even when I am not visibly upset by our reality my heart carries this woundedness, this deep grief, that life is not what it could be.

While I find liturgy helpful at times...at this time specifically Friends silent Meeting for Worship and meditation on my own both come into their own. Silent places where my grief can be allowed to take its own time, where there are no guiding posts for the heart. My soul simply fumbles forward having experienced this death...I only really have my trust that there is the something More who draws me on. This is I think what William Johnston calls the 'prayer of suffering'...it is also a 'prayer of nothingness' that takes me into a 'terrible gift' namely the wisdom from wounds that I did not seek after and unimaginable love within me and around me. I say love, because I have never had cause to love like this. I did not really and truly and deeply know about this kind of love in myself or in all the people who have supported us.

So to draw this together perhaps lent is where we acknowledge that death and love are inconstricably linked, one cannot go without the other...love must know death, otherwise it is not really love. I leave this post with a quote from John Main (d. 1982), master of Christian meditation:

Death itself, especially the death of someone we have loved, teaches us what love teaches us. It reveals to us that the more deeply we love and enter into communion, so the more radically we must become detached and non-possessive. To continue to fall into love we must continue to fall way from the ego. It is the final and most demanding of the lessons that life teaches us. It is the absolute finality of the Cross, the single-pointedness of the Cross that yet opens up into the infinite universe of the Resurrection (Community of Love, 1990).