I COMMEND the Newcastle Herald for shining the light on institutional abuse of children in the Hunter and across Australia. In particular, I commend Joanne McCarthy for her courage and perseverance.
My hope is that the various inquiries under way will bring real justice for survivors of abuse and help to stamp out abuse in the future.
Out of these inquires must come new systems to make it harder for people to abuse children in institutions, to more easily catch those who carry out abuse, so we truly have better protection of children and young people.
We need to continue to shine the light more widely too because, sadly, the vast majority of childhood abuse does not occur within the church or institutions, it occurs within families.
The light also needs to shine on the human and societal consequences of the abuse being uncovered. Not in the way that we sometimes shine the light on survivors, bringing shame or stigma, but to help them to heal from their trauma.
We must make sure that the brave people who have told their stories to the Herald, police and to the various commissions are not forgotten now they have played their part in identifying perpetrators.
We must also help the people who are still sitting silently but for whom the shining of the light has brought back the pain of their own childhood abuse. It is so sad to sometimes see people and the media suggesting these victims will be suffering for the rest of their lives. This does not need to be the case. They can heal and move on from their childhood pain so unfairly caused by others. We all need to get this message across that healing from childhood abuse and trauma is necessary and possible.
This month is mental health month and there is clear evidence the mental health system needs to change.
There is a very strong link between mental illness and childhood trauma. Research shows that 80per cent of people with depression have suffered some form of childhood trauma. (Studies also show that 94per cent of amphetamine users and 92per cent of heroin addicts admit to experiencing trauma. About 80per cent of alcoholics admit to being abused.)
Independent research, using validated, national health measures, shows that 69per cent of surveyed guests attending a Heal For Life healing week have a serious mental illness. After six months, this figure has been reduced to 34per cent. Healing week participants have statistically significant improvements in pain index, vitality, social functioning and emotional functioning over the same period. An amazing 90per cent of guests describe the Heal For Life program as ‘‘life-changing’’ or ‘‘very positive’’ compared to just 19per cent of guests who describe previous traditional therapy as ‘‘very effective’’.
At Heal For Life, we help people who have been told by the mental health system that they will never work. These people are now back working or studying.
This is evidence that shines a light of hope for survivors of abuse and those experiencing mental illness. Heal For Life’s successful, low-cost model, developed and delivered by survivors for survivors, with support from health professionals, has replicable factors for all mental health and trauma care.
We know that trauma causes physical changes to the brain and that the brain does heal from that trauma.
Mental illness should be seen as a recoverable illness because its causes are physical. Rather than just treat, manage or medicate people, we need to also give them tools to help them to get back the power so unfairly taken from them when they suffered abuse so they can help themselves to rebuild their lives.
We need to ask people experiencing metal illness what happened in their childhood that may be impacting on them.
For many people, the Herald has shone a light on the cause. We need to shine the light on the fact that while there is funding for these important inquiries, there is no additional funding for organisations trying to help those who survived the abuse. Even more tragically, there is next to no funding or acknowledgement that survivors of this abuse should be supported to heal from their trauma – not just be managed or medicated.
It is time to shine the light on the systemic failure of our society to help “victims” of abuse to see themselves as survivors and to start to heal.
Liz Mullinar is the founder and chief executive of the Hunter-based Heal For Life Foundation. It provides programs to help survivors to heal from childhood abuse and trauma in Australia and the UK. healforlife.com.au.