A mental health charity has been slammed for a racist depiction of Indigenous people in a social media post it was trying to use to raise awareness about mental health issues that disproportionately affect Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.
The post contained two statistics: that Indigenous people are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide and nearly three times more likely to be psychologically distressed than non-Indigenous people.
It looks like the foundation might have added to that distress however.
“If I don’t carry my spear does this statistic still apply to me?” Ngarabal man Anton Schirripa wrote on Twitter with a screenshot of the post showing the two statistics next to a cartoon of a man in tribal paint holding a stick.
“This isn’t even a well-drawn stereotype,” he added in a follow up tweet, pointing out the clothing is more Egyptian than Aboriginal.
“Imagine not realising how harmful this kind of stereotyping can be for Aboriginal peoples, especially young Aboriginal men, and then using it in a mental health campaign? These racist depictions directly contribute to mental illness,” he said calling on the charity to “do better”.
The charity was quick to publicly apologise for its error, calling the post “inappropriate”.
“We completely understand the ramifications of posting this inappropriate stereotype,” a statement read.
“Such stereotyping is completely anathema to the passionate work in the area of multicultural tolerance we espouse at the heart of our organisation’s ethos.
“We would like to sincerely apologise to all Indigenous communities and individuals that we have offended and misrepresented in our post.
“We would like to thank you for drawing our attention to this error and by ‘calling it out’ and clearly stating how detrimental such insensitive depictions can be.
“Certainly we meant no deliberate ill intention and pride ourselves on championing culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
“Unfortunately this time we fell far shot or our guiding principles, goals and ethos. This has hurt us deeply.”
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Journalist Miguel D’Souza jumped in to point out that the poorly drawn “stereotype” wasn’t necessarily the foundation’s fault, since they weren’t the ones that drew it.
“It’s a stock image,” he said, linking to a website selling a royalty-free vector of “Australia tourism nature and culture icons” which also includes vectors of Aboriginal drums, boomerangs and Uluru.
The white man depicted in the image collection is given a surfboard instead of a stick.
The image was one of several created by Mental Health Foundation Australia (MHFA) in the lead-up to National Mental Health Month.
MHFA vice-chairperson Jim Goodin told news.com.au he hadn’t seen the post and wouldn’t have approved of it, calling it an “honest mistake”, possibly made by younger workers.
“Sometimes these things do slip through when you’ve got a number of staff working, particularly younger staff too who might not necessarily be quite as aware of the sensitivity.”
He did concede it was the organisation overall that was responsible.
“We have to accept responsibility for it, it’s certainly stereotypes Indigenous people as being spear-carrying people with painted bodies and loincloths, which is probably not a good image,” Mr Goodin said.
“We would certainly apologise for that if anyone was offended by it, and obviously someone has been … I would say that it is an honest mistake and sometimes these unfortunate mistakes do slip through.”
A Twitter account representing the foundation has not responded to Mr Schirripa’s social media post but it has deleted its own, not before receipts were taken.
The MHFA is a medium sized charity registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).
Last year it had an income of $683,614, more than two-thirds of which came from government grants.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s wife Kirilly is one of 13 people on the board of directors, which also features prominent Australians across psychology, healthcare, teaching, and the executive class.
None of them are Indigenous, despite Indigenous people being disproportionately impacted by mental health issues, as the MHFA sought to point out.
“Currently we don’t have any Indigenous board members, we do have a very strong program of multicultural ambassadors and we do have multicultural ambassadors from Indigenous communities and workers from Indigenous communities,” Mr Goodin said.
“It’s something that we certainly are aiming to increase the representation of, it’s just something that has been difficult for us to do for one reason or another, we have not had the kind of penetration into those communities that we would like to have quite frankly but we are working on that.”
He said the MHFA recently employed a man in Queensland from an Indigenous background and were looking “all the time” to make more contacts.
“The objectives of the Foundation are to educate the community to promote resilience positive mental health and wellbeing; to promote awareness of mental illness and to destigmatise mental health issues,” the MHFA said on its ACNC page.