How healing trauma is key to closing the gap

Separated from her mother at just 18 months old, Deb Hocking understands the trauma of the Stolen Generations. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

Separated from her mother at just 18 months old, Deb Hocking understands the trauma of the Stolen Generations. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

She had a tough start, but Ms Hocking counts herself as one of the luckier ones.

She had a tough start, but Ms Hocking counts herself as one of the luckier ones.

Seeing indigenous Australians through the prism of trauma could be the key to closing the gap with non-indigenous Australians, according to UOW's Debra Hocking. She spoke to BEN LANGFORD and proved she is no stranger to trauma herself.

This life could have turned out very differently for Deb Hocking.

Soon she will complete a journey from living on the streets to teaching with Harvard.

And that will mean delving again into the kinds of trauma that coloured her early life and ruined the lives of many others.

Ms Hocking has been chosen to be the local co-ordinator of a new program from Harvard University that will focus on Australian Aboriginal people. It will train health practitioners in treating patients as survivors of trauma - layers of distressing events, often across several generations, which give rise behavioural and physical symptoms.

''She said 'you have to believe in God'. I said 'well I don't'. And she said 'well what do you believe in?' I said 'I believe in myself'. Whack, across the face again.''

Ms Hocking, 55, co-ordinator of the University of Wollongong postgraduate indigenous health program, says the evidence shows medical professionals need to understand this trauma if we are going to "close the gap" in indigenous disadvantage.

"The research shows it started from colonisation," she told Weekender.

"The trauma comes from being dispossessed from land, from your country, being taken from your family, experiencing racism, and in many cases loss of identity, loss of language, loss of culture."

These trauma factors are not just historical. In 2013 Judy Atkinson, of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, wrote that the "high level of distress in some indigenous families" means some young people are "at risk of exposure to a toxic mix of trauma and life stressors".

Research shows that when children are exposed to trauma while their brains are developing, it can have permanent affects.

Often present are factors including poverty, family violence, disproportionate imprisonment and the too-regular funerals that are a large part of life in many communities - funerals for family members who are invariably dying too young, from disease, suicide or misadventure.

These are facts of life for many Aboriginal people and when Harvard trauma expert Professor Richard Mollica visited Australian communities in 2013, he saw the conditions matched definitions of trauma precisely.

"Trauma presents itself in many different ways," Ms Hocking said.

"People might say non-Aboriginal people have trauma too. But we have compounded trauma, which leads to depression. We have higher rates of suicide, we have nine-year-olds hanging themselves, we have family violence out of control. And these are all in many ways the symptoms of trauma."

Professor Mollica set about adapting the Harvard program to suit Australia, and when a partner university was found in UoW, Deb Hocking was invited to co-ordinate it.

Ms Hocking herself was no stranger to trauma.

Removed from her mother in Hobart as an 18-month-old infant, the young Debra was sent to a foster home nearby. The official papers said she was removed for neglect, but Ms Hocking says a review of her file by Bringing Them Home report author Ronald Wilson found no evidence of neglect. It was a common tactic to remove mixed-blood children, she said.

The foster home was worse. Her Stolen Generations testimony, recorded and available online, tells of how she was not only stripped of her family and culture, but also subjected to physical and sexual abuse by the people who were meant to be her guardians.

After 15 years, she ran away, living on the streets, trying to find her feet.

And at a time when many could turn to drugs, crime or sleaze to get by, she found the internal fortitude that would help make her who she is. Plucking up her courage, she walked into the ANZ bank in Central Hobart, asked for a job and got it. She was 16, and had found self-belief at the very time many lose it, and a life was put back on track. She was good with numbers and soon would become head teller.

A tough start, but Ms Hocking counts herself as one of the luckier ones.

She rediscovered her mother at age 20, learning about their Aboriginal heritage as her mother was dying. That started a long process of reconnecting to her culture, the Mouheneenner people from southeast Tasmania.

Over the years that followed, she worked as an advocate and indigenous activist, particularly for the Stolen Generations, and in the push for a national apology, as an act of healing.

The ranks of the stolen generations include many damaged souls, people who are reaching their senior years, or the end of their lives, without having healed the compound traumas that have shaped their lives.

Some have become more resilient; some are broken.

Deb Hocking ascribes her strength to a self-belief forged as a child.

"When I was in a foster home, with my foster parents, who were Christian people, I resisted the church, I didn't want to be a part of the Christian system.

"To me it didn't make sense, because you went to church, and then you came home from church and you did bad things. It was hypocrisy, as far as I was concerned.

"So I refused to go to church, and my foster mother smacked my face. She said 'you have to believe in God'. I said 'well I don't'. And she said 'well what do you believe in?' I said 'I believe in myself'. Whack, across the face again. But I stood true to that because I believed in myself from a very young age. I come from a line of very strong women.

"I remember that occasion and I've stuck by it. I've had a husband die, and I've survived cancer, many other things in my later life, but I still believe."

For Deb Hocking, there was also the extra perceived demand to prove her worth as an Aborigine owing to her fair skin.

"I love human nature, I think it's a wonderful thing," she said.

"I'm not into this idea that some Aboriginal people have, where they don't like the white people.

"That's crazy, because most of us have white heritage in us. My thing is, if you don't like white people, there's part of yourself you don't like. And that wasn't for me.

"[But] I've had to deal with the issue of having fair skin. I've learnt responses over the years. As a younger person, I'd think 'maybe I shouldn't say anything, maybe I should just be quiet [about my Aboriginality]'.

"It was a hard world to step up into, and people are looking for proof of worth, saying things like 'you don't even look like an Aboriginal person'. My response to the that is: 'well, haven't you been conditioned?'

"[When giving speeches] I have a glass that's half full of black coffee. I ask the audience what is this, and they say 'well, that's a cup of coffee'. So I start adding milk, ask them what it is, 'it's a cup of coffee'. As much milk as I put in, it's still a cup of coffee, so that's the way I explain Aboriginality. I say I'm the latte, big deal."

The Australian version of the Harvard trauma program, which has also been adapted for refugees from South East Asia, Iraq and survivors of the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan, will be run through UoW from mid-next year.

"So rather than write a script for the physical health condition, what we need to do is look at the underlying trauma," Ms Hocking said.

"And evidence shows that it is compounded trauma that needs to be dealt with before the physical symptoms.

"Because of the content of the course, it does touch the hard stuff. It has to.

"Things have to run their course, things have to be understood. And I think we are very close to getting to that stage now, where mainstream doctors are saying to me 'I need to understand this, for me to treat people I need to understand this'."

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