Psychologists apologise to Indigenous Australians for decades of mistreatment


Apology acknowledges exploitation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and silence in face of forced removal of children

The Australian Psychological Society has made a formal apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for decades of mistreatment through exploitative and disrespectful practices that contributed to the erosion of Indigenous culture. The apology, delivered by director of the society’s board, Tim Carey, acknowledged exploitation of Indigenous people by psychological researchers and “inappropriate use of assessment techniques and procedures that have conveyed misleading and inaccurate messages about the abilities and capacities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.


Carey, speaking at the Australian Psychological Society Congress in Melbourne on Thursday, said treatments were developed that “both implicitly and explicitly, dismissed the importance of culture in understanding and promoting social and emotional wellbeing”.


He said the society “sincerely and formally” apologised for its “silence and lack of advocacy” on behalf of Indigenous Australians in the face of policies such as the forced removal of children that led to the stolen generations and for “conducting research that has benefited the careers of researchers rather than improved the lives of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants”.


The society committed to listen to and follow the lead of Indigenous people to create a “a future where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people control what is important to them rather than having this controlled by others”.


“Ultimately, through our combined efforts, this will be a future where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enjoy the same social and emotional wellbeing as other Australians,” Carey said.


Prof Patricia Dudgeon, the first Indigenous person to become a psychologist in Australia, said the apology was a “tremendous moment.”


“The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and psychologists are delighted that the APS has taken this important step,” she said.


Dudgeon, a professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Western Australia, has written before that the practice of psychology had been part of the “colonising process” in Australia that had “objectified, dehumanised and devalued those from culturally different groups”.


It had also, she wrote, “often been enlisted to enact or justify practices of assimilation and oppression”.


Social Darwinism was used by early Australian psychologists to describe Indigenous Australians as a primitive race, which in turn drove a series of research projects to study the mind of “primitive man”. It was, she wrote, “a psychological determinism that has supported a racist agenda”.


Dudgeon delivered a keynote speech about the modern Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychology before the apology on Thursday.


President Mike Kyrios said the apology was an important step in the society’s long-running reconciliation process, which is aimed at encouraging more Indigenous students to study psychology and increasing the number of Indigenous people in the profession.