A stark difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures lies in a description I heard related to mental health. It came fr3046032-Shaw_River_Pilbara_Western_Australia_Pilbaraom a Pilbara woman maybe fifteen years ago.

We sat under a tree looking over the sand in the river.

I was trying to describe my frustration at an experience I’d had in another region a couple of months before. I’d spoken with Jenny, as I will call her for this story, because she was a senior Aboriginal woman and one who’d guided me to understanding Aboriginal culture over some years.

“It’s about a young Aboriginal boy, Jenny. He’s about eleven or twelve, his name is Gary, and he’s got severe behavioural problems. We know his mum was an alcoholic so he has foetal alcohol syndrome. But he’s been sniffing petrol for a year or so and he’s a real handful. He’s shouldn’t really be at an ordinary school, but that’s the only place in town and anyway, his grandfather and grandmother need to have a break from always caring for him..”

She made no comment: just looked with an interesting expression, so I continued.

“And one of the things that gets to me is how the regional psych talks about him. By that, I mean, when Gary’s at school, if something happens that upsets him, he takes off and goes down town. He gets cigarettes from somewhere and when he’s smoked them, he’ll go looking for petrol and a can and wander the main street with glazed eyes, usually yelling nonsense at people passing by until the police take him to dry out and then to hospital or to his Grandfather’s place. But what got me most was a comment from the psych, and while I know it was meant as a joke, I didn’t find funny or in any way appropriate.”

I sat in silence until she asked, “What that psych fella say?”

“He told me one day, ‘the best thing that can happen will be when he lights a cigarette with the petrol can around his neck and blows his head off’.”

Her face was impassive but finally she spoke. “The psych thing – how they work with us mob, don’t help us . See, when psych come to see one of my mob, he takes that one to a room, closes door and arks lots and lots of questions in English.” She suddenly smiled at me. “You know what I mean, Dave. You know us mob got to listen hard to know what you mob talk about.”

I agreed and added, “Like you when you mob use language, and I got no idea what you say.”ntaria1992052401

“Yuwa, been same thing.”

“So, if that way – our way – doesn’t work, Jenny, what should  happen? What would you mob do?”

She picked up a stick and drew two pictures in the dust. One was of a circle with an X next to it, a straight line connecting the two and beside that, a circle of Xs. Then for her second picture, she drew concentric circles, an inner one as a line and an outer one as Xs.

She pointed at the first one. “That been you mob. Circle been Gary, X been psych man and this,” she indicated the circle of Xs, been us mob. That psych been tell him what he got to do and not do to be part of the mob. This one,” and she pointed at the second picture, “been us mob. That circle been Gary and us mob been around him. We make him part of us mob and show him what he got to do and not do to be part of us mob.”

She sighed. “Maybe too late for that boy you talk about. But our way, we don’t lock him up. We go out bush and take him away from bad things. We show him good things to do and ways to do them, always with family.”

She smiled sadly. “Maybe that’s we got to start doing again.”