Unpacking The Mental Health Toll The Referendum Has Had On First Nations People

An image of a "Vote No" sign with the word "Racist" graffitid onto the ground. We Can't Overlook The Mental Health Toll On First Nations Folk In The Lead Up To The Voice to Parliament Referendum
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses mental health issues and suicide.

Regardless of how you are voting on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the upcoming referendum, there is no denying that the debate surrounding the controversial advisory body has been nasty from the get-go, with thinly veiled or even outright bigotry largely going unchallenged.

The recent weeks have seen an escalation of hostility and racist misinformation deployed by the “Conservative No” campaign. Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner penned a piece about his disgust with how things have panned out and Indigenous charities told ABC News they had seen a rise in suicide rates and First Nations people seeking mental health support.

While settlers and colonisers debate amongst each other on whether or not the Voice should be implemented, caught in the crossfire are First Nations people, some of whom feel they have been put in an incredibly uncomfortable — and in one expert’s opinion, re-traumatising — position.

Worimi woman and clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth Dale, from the Indigenous Health School of Medical, Indigenous and Health Sciences at University of Wollongong, spoke to PEDESTRIAN.TV about the toll the Voice referendum has had on Aboriginal people.

“We as a collective, a community group, already experienced higher rates of psychological distress. Intergenerational trauma is still an ongoing issue with the ongoing impacts of colonisation,” she said.

“This (the Voice referendum) has just exacerbated all of that. It’s causing huge amounts of stress and anxiety in our community and in our people.”

This is pretty evident in literally any comment section on any article about the Voice, but First Nations folks are also directly speaking out about the impacts of this debate on their mental health.

Tagalaka and Gumatj man Conor Bowden told ABC News that he had noticed an uptick of hateful comments on the TikTok account he runs with Jaiden McGregor, which discusses the two’s decision to vote “Yes”.

“It definitely takes a toll on your mental health … just to know that people who are out there aren’t willing to learn about the struggles we reach,” Conor said.

Djab Wurrung woman Sissy Austin has been open about the toll the referendum will take on Aboriginal people, writing on Instagram that the referendum “has comprised our safety”.

“A ‘Yes’ vote will leave white supremacists angry, a ‘No’ vote will leave them celebrating. It’s a lose/lose referendum,” she wrote.

“We have been thrown into an erupting volcano in a country that was never ready for this referendum.”

The referendum means everyone in Australia will vote on what will only impact Aboriginal folks — a system which Dr Dale believes was always going to be divisive and traumatic for Aboriginal folk who now have to convince settlers of their rights and humanity.

“We’re only 2.5 per cent of the population — we’re relying on the majority to make this decision for us. For us to then live in a society side by side with people who say ‘No, we don’t support you having a voice’, it’s really a repeat, traumatic tactic of the coloniser to even have us in this position in the first place,” she said.

Dale also noted the less-discussed impact of this debate on Indigenous “Progressive No” voters, who have to contend with both the racist “No” campaign and then also hostility from “Yes” voters.

“There’s that assumption that because you are Aboriginal, you are going to vote ‘Yes’ — that in itself is really traumatising for the Aboriginal person who wants to vote ‘No’,” she said.

“We already feel like strangers in our own country. We’re already struggling on a day to day level trying to live in a post colonial world.”

On the other hand, the “No” vote prevailing would feel like an “outright rejection” to Indigenous folk who support the Voice, the impacts of which Dr Dale said could be really damaging — and the thought of which is stressful in the lead up.

“We’re really worried about the future, not just for now, but for our children and society,” she said.

“Whatever the outcome of the vote is, it’s going to shift society. Things won’t be the same again. Can you imagine what it’s going to be like for us if we have to live in a society where it was a ‘No’ vote?”

So, what now? How can Aboriginal people protect their peace and mental health during what is becoming an increasingly stressful time?

“We really need to be mindful of our social and emotional well being right now,” Dr Dale said.

“I’m just suggesting to people to limit [time on] or to not go on social media. To avoid being exposed to all the negative messaging that’s around there, and to really focus on creating safe spaces at home. That might even include things like not putting the TV on, just watching DVDs for a little while and music so that we can control what we’re being exposed to.

“The main thing we really need to do is stay connected and support one another through this. We can’t let the tactic of division and control and confusion rule — we need to stay connected with each other, connected to Country.

“Don’t let differing opinions or views destroy our family and our mob. We need to stand together now with one mob made up of many mobs. And we can really use this time to draw closer to each other, support each other. Talk about our feelings with each other in a really kind and respectful way.”

Aussies will vote on the Voice to Parliament Referendum on Saturday 14 October, though early voting has already opened up. We’re close to the finish line and soon, for better or for worse, we’ll know what the outcome of this will be. In the meantime, take care of yourself and check in with your mates.

Image: Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

If you’re feeling affected by this content, help is available. There’s no shame in talking about it.