A Cape York Mayor wants more efficient primary health care in remote communities. (Facebook: Qld Fire and Emergency Services)
A Cape York mayor says a perpetual cycle of death is having major impact upon the mental health of his community and more can be done to detect chronic diseases earlier.
- Inefficient primary health is failing to detect chronic diseases early, resulting in premature deaths in Cape York, says a local Mayor
- The median age at death for Indigenous men is 58, 20 years younger than non-Indigenous men
- Aboriginal community health workers urge people to spend more time on country to reduce stress and improve life satisfaction
Lockhart River, in far north Queensland, has a population of just 700 people but the community has endured at least five funerals this year.
They have been followed by extended grieving, known as sorry business.
“I watch families fall apart after the death of someone that’s not supposed to die,” Mayor Wayne Butcher said.
Lockhart River mayor Wayne Butcher says his community has had five funerals this year, but other small communities have had up to 15. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)
“It doesn’t just impact one or two people. It just destroys a family and it’s always sad to watch households fall apart and watch young people fall apart in the process.”
According to a report commissioned by the Federal Health Department in 2016, the median age at death for Indigenous men is 58 years — that’s around 20 years younger than non-Indigenous men.
Councillor Butcher said while Lockhart River had a large number of deaths, a similar-sized community, Kowanyama in Cape York had suffered more than 15 funerals this year.
He said sorry business can impact upon the community for years.
“Especially if there is a favourite member of the community who everyone likes, that person who always says g’day to everyone down the street,” he said.
“Being a small community, you watch people grow up and you know the good people and when they go the mourning lasts a very long time.”
Inadequate primary health
The local health service spent $51.47 million on primary health in Cape York in 2018–19, which is more than 8 per cent on the year before.
But Councillor Butcher said health care delivery had become inefficient, despite more spending on Indigenous communities.
“Back in the 1970s and 80s, throughout our communities, we had that reach-out service where you actually go out into the community and engage,” he said.
“Too much investment is being wasted on FIFO-type arrangements on services.”
Councillor Butcher referred to a screening program held at the community Men’s Shed where about 80 men were tested for chronic diseases.
“It was extraordinary. You’re flat out getting that number in 12 months, to go to the local primary health care centre,” he said.
“There was one follow-up and since then we’ve had no other follow-up.”
In response, Danielle Causer, a director at the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service, said it was hard to have consistent specialist care in remote communities.
“Given the specialised nature of many primary health services, for instance sexual health, dental check-up services, speech therapy, physiotherapy, mental health, diabetes and so on, it is not possible to have the appropriate specialised staff resident in every location,” Ms Causer said.
“In these situations, services are delivered by regularly visiting specialised staff based in larger centres, such as Weipa, Cooktown, or Cairns.
“In Lockhart River, as in other communities, many of our primary health care services — whether delivered by locally resident or visiting staff — have been and will continue to be provided in venues outside the main clinic, as well as through home visits where possible.”
Public health advisor Mark Wenitong from Apunipima, the largest Aboriginal community-controlled health organisation in Queensland, said the cycle of trauma was complicated.
Dr Mark Wenitong says a consistent cycle of grieving is difficult for people in Indigenous communities. (Supplied, file photo)
Dr Wenitong said everybody was affected, and there was little relief.
“This isn’t the type of thing that you’re meant to be resilient to,” he said.
“We can counsel people but, at the end of the day, we’ve just got to stop people dying as early as they are.”
Dr Wenitong said there were a number of reasons why Indigenous people were dying so young, including chronic disease, road crashes, and suicide.
He said most of the causes of death were linked to constant stress, which could be reduced.
Dr Mark Wenitong says spending time on country can help with the mental health of people in remote communities. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)
“Things like time on country. The more time you spend on country, the better for your own life satisfaction,” Dr Wenitong said.
“Even though bad things happen in these communities, like these premature deaths, there are also some very important protective factors and we need to maximise those.
“There may be a time in the future when we’re actually looking more at some cultural therapeutic approaches, for people’s wellbeing, as opposed to taking an anti-depressant.”