Voice campaigns urged to keep mental health top of mind

Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS

Advocates for Indigenous mental health are trying to do the impossible: encourage politicians to be more civil.

The Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association and Black Dog Institute are among a group of mental health organisation asking them to sign a Respectful Referendum Pledge.

The pledge is a set of principles to encourage more civil and inclusive conversations about the Indigenous voice to parliament, that aim to reduce social and emotional harms ahead of the referendum on October 14.

Clinton Schultz, a Gamilaroi/Gomeroi psychologist and director of First Nations partnership and strategy at the Black Dog Institute, told AAP that negative commentary around the voice was causing harm.

"The closer we're getting to the referendum, the more vitriol we're actually seeing online and experiencing first-hand as First Nations people," he said.

"It's definitely taking a toll on the social and emotional wellbeing of First Nations people.

"I'm a psychologist by profession and I've got people regularly contacting me disclosing the significant psychological distress that they're feeling due to the conversation that's happening around the referendum."

Mental health advocates have been warning government the voice referendum debate would have negative impacts on Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing, just as the same-sex marriage plebiscite had on the LGBTQI community.

Earlier this year, Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan warned that focusing the Indigenous voice debate on race emboldened racists and exposed First Nations people to abuse.

Australia's online safety agency has launched extra support services for Indigenous people.

"For those who witness abuse, regardless of who the target may be, we encourage you to be an 'upstander', rather than a bystander," eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said.

Before the referendum campaigns began, First Nations people were twice as likely to be the subject of hate speech online compared with the national average.

Indigenous children are three times as likely to encounter such abuse.

"We know the tonality of the debate has a significant effect on mental health impacts," Dr Schultz said.

"The more divisive the debate, the greater the impact; the more respectful and inclusive, the lesser the impact."

People should not shy away from conversation on the referendum, he said, but remain aware of the risks and be proactive in reducing potential harms.

Dr Schultz said the pledge has simple guidelines, asking politicians to be more considerate.

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