Together: Engaging and Improving Mental Health for Aboriginal Communities

By July 9, 2018 No Comments
The Barngarla Language and Wellbeing Study project team

Can the Revival of Indigenous Languages Improve the Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People?

An interview with the Aboriginal Research Unit at SAHMRI.

  1. How did your team first come to collaborate on this project?

Barngarla people from Eyre Peninsula, South Australia have had a dictionary of approximately 3000 Barngarla words that were documented by a Lutheran missionary in Port Lincoln in the 1840s.  They’ve also had a very strong desire to reclaim their language, which had ceased daily use within the past several decades (largely as a consequence of government policies that led to the removal of many Barngarla children from country and family).  In 2011, the Chair of Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, was looking for communities who might benefit from Revivalistics (a trans-disciplinary research approach that supplements linguistics with a range of other disciplines such as law, architecture or archaeology to more robustly revive dormant languages).  When approached, Barngarla community members in Port Augusta, Whyalla and Port Lincoln embraced this opportunity to reclaim, re-learn, document and transmit their language to the next generation.  Since 2012, Barngarla families have been working with Ghil’ad (primarily in the format of bi-monthly, day-long language workshops) and conducting a range of community-led language-based activities (such as performing Welcome to Country in Barngarla, working with local councils to encourage dual-language signage, developing school-based language programs, collaborating with musicians in a Barngarla Songs Program, developing language resources such as flashcards and workbooks).  In the context of these diverse activities, Barngarla people began to notice improvements in spiritual, emotional and social health within their families.

As a consequence of anecdotal indications that Barngarla language reclamation might be responsible for improving mental health and social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB), Ghil’ad (on behalf of Barngarla communities) approached Professor Alex Brown, the program leader of Wardliparingga (the Aboriginal health research unit at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute in Adelaide).  This was in part because Alex, an Aboriginal medical doctor and research academic, has extensive experience and expertise in mixed-methods research into bio-psycho-social health of Aboriginal peoples.  Together they explored the possibility of a collaborative research project that could systematically assess the mental health and SEWB impacts of Indigenous language reclamation.  In November 2016, the collaboration successfully was awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council project grant of $1.1M over five years to undertake this innovative work.  The project is governed and guided by the Barngarla Language Advisory Committee (BLAC).  It also is a collaboration between the University of Adelaide, Wardliparingga and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, where the four Chief Investigators are affiliated.  Associate Investigators bring cultural, linguistic and psychological expertise from University of Sydney, University of Wollongong, Curtin University and Barngarla communities.  The project is Aboriginal led and governed and of the 11 project team members, seven are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.

  1. Why should people come and listen to your symposium?

As this research is the first of its kind in the world, the project team has spent much of the first two years developing suitable methods.  Importantly, the methods are being developed in close collaboration with Barngarla community members to ensure community relevance and cultural appropriateness at all stages of the study.  At our TheMHS symposium, we look forward to sharing with you our processes and findings so far, including: showcasing Barngarla community language activities; describing how linguistics can support language activities that may already be taking place within Aboriginal communities; sharing the findings of our first phase of qualitative research exploring community members’ perspectives on the potential impacts of language reclamation; and describing our processes for developing the psychometric assessment tool that will be used to measure SEWB impacts for the final several years of the project.  We are excited about our work and can’t wait to share it with you.

  1. What are three things people should know about your team?

(1)   This project is Aboriginal-led and governed, drawing on mental health, linguistic and community expertise.

(2)  Collaborative, trans-disciplinary research may be complex to manage at times, but it is rich and rewarding and produces some really beautiful results.

(3)  The team hopes to share our processes and outcomes to assist other Indigenous groups (both within Australia and internationally) to demonstrate and measure the impacts of reviving their culture and heritage through language.

  1. Why are you looking forward to presenting in Adelaide? 

Meeting at our project hub in Adelaide is an opportunity to bring our full team together, as well as to share our work with a new audience – which is really exciting.  We hope to see you at our symposium!

  1. Where can people find out more about your work? 

Project Team Biography

The Barngarla Language and Wellbeing Study project team comprises the following members (* indicates non-Indigenous members of the team):

  • Professor Alex Brown – Theme Leader, Wardliparingga/ Deputy Director, SAHMRI
  • Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann* – Linguist/ Chair of Endangered Languages, University of Adelaide
  • Professor Ngiare Brown – Youth and Adolescent Mental Health, Wardliparingga
  • Dr Graham Gee – Psychologist, Victorian Aboriginal Health Service
  • Professor Alan Rosen* – Psychiatrist, Illawarra Institute of Mental Health, University of Wollongong / Brain  &  Mind  Centre, University  of  Sydney
  • Ms Emmalene Richards – Community Research Associate, Barngarla Language Advisory Committee
  • Mr Stephen Atkinson – Community Research Associate, Barngarla Language Advisory Committee
  • Dr Michael Wright – School of Occupational Therapy, Social Work and Speech Pathology, Curtin University
  • Dr Michael Walsh* – Linguist, University of Sydney
  • Ms Leda Sivak* – Study Coordinator, Wardliparingga /PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide
  • Mr Seth Westhead – Research Assistant, Wardliparingga/ MPH Candidate, University of Adelaide



The Barngarla Language and Wellbeing Study project team

Stephen Atkinson, Alex Brown, Harold Dare, Graham Gee

Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Emma Richards, Jenna Richards, Leda Sivak