For indigenous Australians, drumming can be a powerful force for healing

Written by By Alysha Richmond , CNN Written by Alysha Richmond , CNN Indigenous drumming continues to impact her mental health, one that comes with challenges and limits.

Three years ago, Alysha Richmond was struggling with a mental health crisis. She wasn’t sleeping well, she was hyperactive, she was disoriented, irritable and frightened. She had contemplated suicide. Her father and siblings — both of whom had had experiences with mental illness and were educators — worried she was on the verge of killing herself.

So they insisted she see a psychiatrist. But she was socially awkward, with a low self-esteem and rarely opened up. She didn’t identify with or trust the clinical medical setting.

“I felt so depressed that I wasn’t able to do anything with myself,” Richmond told CNN. “My own father said to me, ‘I can’t control you. I can’t make you happy. I just want you to be safe.’”

That was when the second part of Richmond’s world changed. She discovered the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’s (ATSIS) drumming, a foundational element of their cultural identity. While still a teenager, she began working at her local circle drumming circle.

These community-based drumming circles, known as paroles, are established by ATSIS to help connect to older generations and encourage people to discuss mental health. Paroles encourage families and others to develop a deeper connection to their culture through shared stories, dances and traditional music.

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The drumming helped her relieve some of her stress and overwhelmed her mind. Now, not only can she articulate her feelings, but she can discuss issues like suicide with her family and within her circle.

“Drumming is a way for me to tell the story of the Theosophical Philosophers of ATSIS,” Richmond told CNN. “To my community I bring light, to connect, to keep and heal.”

A healing space for healing

Roughly 70% of people with chronic illness are affected by mental health issues, according to a 2017 report from the Institute of Medicine and American Medical Association . Yet many patients stay silent about it because they feel like there is no cure.

Having a group of people with common interests can be helpful for alleviating stress and lowering blood pressure.

But unlike medical treatments, which adapt to specific patient’s behavior, scientists and clinicians often prescribe medicines and related therapies, which may not reflect the unique beliefs, experiences and struggles of individuals.

“If a white American is talking with a white American it’s a universal language,” said Catherine Krever, an assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, who studies stigma and health disparities. “The Indigenous language is a lot more colorful and unique.”

Accessibility, stigma and discrimination

Organizations working to open doors and bridge cultural boundaries face several barriers. Access to help can be limited, as can their understanding of cultural differences. Medical providers may also be uncomfortable with patients using multiple languages, which could make for awkward and time-consuming interactions.

“Racial discrimination” often arises when people don’t see they’re getting full and unbiased care for a chronic illness, said Beverly McCollum, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who studies healthcare access.

“If people come to the doctor and there’s prejudice toward them, they might not feel comfortable disclosing issues of mental health or post-traumatic stress disorder,” she told CNN.

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