Working the past: Aboriginal Australia and psychiatry

How do we come to grips with the past, and how do we do so in just ways? These questions will be the basis of our discussion by a panel of distinguished speakers.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have historically been subject to much more misdiagnosis, mistreatment, incarceration and coercion than other Australians in the hands of psychiatric institutions, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. The ramifications of psychiatry’s sometimes unwitting, indifferent or knowing complicity in past harmful practices and beliefs have been far-reaching. They extend from the health and well-being of the individual patient, to human rights and social justice concerns that prevail in contemporary Australian society.

How do we come to grips with the past, and how do we do so in just ways? What are the responsibilities of psychiatry to ensure a contribution to improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional health and well-being? What can apology and other forms of recognition achieve? What can we learn from other projects of apology and recognition?

This event was held at the University of Sydney on Wednesday 7 March 2018.


  • Professor Steven Larkin (chair) is a Kungarakany and Yanyula man from Darwin in the Northern Territory. He is Chair of the Healing Foundation and Pro Vice Chancellor for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Newcastle. Steven has and continues to serve on numerous national advisory committees in Indigenous Affairs, and holds appointments on several Boards including Beyond Blue.
  • Professor Alan Rosen AO, longstanding consultant psychiatrist to remote communities; Clinical Associate Professor, Brain & Mind Centre, University of Sydney; Professorial Fellow, Illawarra Institute of Mental Health, University of Wollongong; former Inaugural Deputy Commissioner, Mental Health Commission of NSW. Professor Rosen has been leading advocacy for all mental health professions to apologise to all Indigenous peoples.
  • Ms Joanne Selfe, a mother of a child with autism, Elder Youth Koori Court & Ngara Yura Project Officer, NSW Judicial Commission. Joanne is a founding member of Warringa Baiya, the Aboriginal Women’s Legal Service, a member of the First Nations Disability Network NSW, and The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
  • Dr Robyn Shields AM, a proud Aboriginal person of the Bundjalung people, has worked in the mental health sector for many years, and is now undertaking specialist training as a psychiatrist. She is Deputy Commissioner of the Mental Health Commission of NSW and has an Order of Australia for development of Aboriginal mental health services.

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