Study shows psychological burden of everyday discrimination

Professor Ray Lovett, ANU
9 December 2022

Everyday discrimination could be contributing up to half of the burden of psychological distress among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults, according to a first-of-its-kind study by researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).  

Thirty per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults experience high or very high psychological distress, compared to 13 per cent of non-Indigenous adults.  

According to senior author Professor Ray Lovett, more than 47 per cent of this gap could be caused by just eight different types of interpersonal racial discrimination.  

"In a world without racism, these figures would be equivalent," Professor Ray Lovett (Ngiyampaa/Wongaibon) said.  

"The health and social inequities we see today between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous people are not due to biology or race - they are clear, direct consequences of Australia's settler-colonial history and ongoing racism." 

These findings are based on the stories of almost 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults who took part in the Mayi Kuwayu Study, a national study of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing.  

"We looked at instances of discrimination that might happen during everyday interactions with other people-for example, being treated with less respect than others or being unfairly bothered by police," co-author Dr Katie Thurber said.  

"The experiences captured in our study are just the tip of the iceberg. We have not captured all forms of interpersonal discrimination that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face, or the ubiquitous and insidious impacts of structural racism." 

Co-author and CEO of the Lowitja Institute, Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed (Narrunga Kaurna), said the findings demonstrate what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have long known. 

"The potential harms from discrimination and racism must be recognised if we are to leverage policy reform that impacts the health of our peoples," Adjunct Professor Mohamed said.  

"All levels of government have committed to work to eliminate racism under the 2020 National Agreement on Closing the Gap. We are calling on policymakers, organisations and individuals to honour the National Agreement and to make real change." 

Co-author and Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Professor Tom Calma AO (Kungarakan/Iwaidja), said tacking racism is the necessary first step to improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing and closing gaps. 

"If the contribution of interpersonal discrimination - let alone the whole system of racism - could be this big, how can we justify inaction?" Professor Calma said. 

"There is a clear need for supports for those who have experienced interpersonal discrimination and racism. If we could wave a magic wand and get rid of racism tomorrow, we would still see the lasting damage it has caused." 

Professor Lovett added: "We need changes to individual behaviour and this needs to occur alongside structural change. All those who have benefited from colonisation have a role to play, and all action needs to be guided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples." 

The study has been published in The Lancet's special issue 'Advancing racial and ethnic equity in science, medicine, and global health'.

Update: The Australian launch of the Lancet's special issue was held at ANU on 14 December 2022.

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The researchers note the data presented in this paper, along with the underlying ideas, concepts, and theories discussed, may cause sadness or distress for some people. If you need to talk to someone, call 13YARN on 13 92 76 (24 hours/7 days) to talk with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Crisis Supporter, or see Beyond Blue for mental health resources.