Investigating storytelling to aid healing for bush fire impacted Indigenous communities

Published 17 June 2020

Supported by $624,000 from the Commonwealth's Medical Research Future Fund, University of New England (UNE) Professor of Nursing, Kim Usher, is leading a team that will work with Aboriginal communities to "enhance social and emotional wellbeing through arts-based storytelling".

Storytelling is not the first thing that people arrive at when they think about bushfire recovery, Prof. Usher acknowledges, but it has throughout human history helped people redefine themselves as they adjust to new realities.

"There has been quite a bit of research showing that arts and crafts are an effective way of reducing stress and coming to terms with natural disaster," Prof. Usher said.

"A lot of my own research has looked at mental health care following disasters like earthquakes and cyclones, and my students in this area as well. But to date there has been very little work looking at how Aboriginal people respond to this sort of arts-based intervention."

Prof. Usher's team is collaborating with the Walhallow Aboriginal Health Corporation to first conduct a survey of northern NSW Aboriginal communities to assess the emotional and social effect of the bushfires on Aboriginal communities, and then to design workshops through which community members can learn to tell their stories of that experience.

Prof. Usher believes that for historic and cultural reasons, Aboriginal people are likely to have a different perspective on bushfires to other Australians.

The continent's Indigenous peoples managed its landscapes with fire for millennia, not just to sustain food resources but to ensure that they were not overwhelmed by out-of-control bushfires. Pre-European Aboriginal people could not afford the catastrophic fires of the past year, which apart from their immediate personal dangers, wiped out bush tucker resources for months, perhaps years.

Today's Aboriginal people confront different threats, Prof. Usher said.

"They have lost the ability to be heard. Hopefully, if we can produce a showcase of art out of each affected community, others will be interested in what they have to say and they will regain some visibility."

Before the intervention starts, surveys will be taken across participating communities to gauge states of wellbeing, and also an Aboriginal community not affected by fire and not part of the arts and crafts program. After the intervention, the survey will be repeated, and the results compared to assess changes across the communities.

The project "Enhancing social and emotional wellbeing healing through arts-based storytelling for Aboriginal communities of Northern Inland NSW bushfire affected areas" was one of nine recipients of funding from a $5 million Medical Research Future Fund grant round.

The funding will support a range of projects investigating the physiological and mental health effects of the recent bushfires.

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