SPONSORED: The most extensive and comprehensive longitudinal study of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and well-being ever conducted in Australia continues to engage communities and spark debate as it asks people some important questions.

The Mayi Kuwayu Study team have worked closely with communities around Australia to design a study that includes people often missed in research, such as those in remote areas, with limited English literacy, disability, or in prisons.

MK Study leader Associate Professor Ray Lovett of the Australian National University said the study will highlight how culture is linked to health and well-being. It’s an area with little in the way of quantitative research.

“Our people and communities have been saying for a long time that strong culture is vital to our health and well-being. However, there is a lack of this type of evidence that shows how and why this may be so,” Lovett said.

Lovett, a Wongaibon (Ngiyampaa) man from western NSW has personal experience of the effect of government policy on Aboriginal people – his grandmother was one of the Stolen Generation.

“It’s had a huge impact in my own family – even today, so understanding how these policies impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s lives is really important,” Lovett said.

The questions on the survey cover Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language, identity, cultural beliefs and participation, experiences of racism and the Stolen Generation as well as health conditions, and will establish a valuable resource with which to influence policies and programs.

“The survey asks some hard questions, but they’re useful questions,” Lovett said.

“We lack some of this crucial information at the moment, particularly in relation to things like people’s experiences of racism in the health system. If it [racism] makes people reluctant to engage with the health system, it means it’s not working for us. Having the data to understand this, provides us with a valuable tool.”

In February this year, Mayi Kuwayu Study surveys were mailed to 180,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 16 years and older. The strong and steady response indicates how ready people are to have their voices heard, project manager Jan Chapman said.

“Mayi Kuwayu is now the largest longitudinal study of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in Australia,” Ms Chapman, a Taungurung woman from Victoria, said. “We are getting a particularly good response from older people but more involvement from younger people, and those living in regional and remote settings is welcome.”

The Study has engaged researchers to work with communities in central Australia and far north Queensland to ensure reach in those areas.

Community researcher Nadine Hunt in Cairns says it’s been a great opportunity for her to find out more about her own background.

“Being able to meet and yarn with community members is always special and something I am grateful for,” Ms Hunt said. “Having the privilege to listen and learn so much about our people has been hugely enjoyable. I’ve tried to encourage friends and families to get involved with MK through group conversations, using it as a tool to open up and share stories as we go through the survey questions together.”

“I’ve done this with my own family and it has allowed me to learn so much more about myself and my background.”

Ms Hunt acknowledges that it can take time to build trust in communities.

“The biggest challenge is tackling the stigma that comes with being a ‘researcher’ as people may feel that previous studies have not always been conducted with the community’s best interests in mind.”

“Making sure we are sensitive, respectful and led by community from the start is my priority in gaining the support and trust of community members.”

“I’ve been so lucky to have the incredible support of people such as Ruth Fagan and her team at Gurriny Yealamucka Health Service, who really share their local knowledge and support, and actively get community members involved in the study,” Ms Hunt said.

It’s a similar story in Alice Springs, where community researcher Alyson Wright works closely with the Central Land Council, Tangentyere Council and Waltja, and Aboriginal researchers at Tangentyere Research Hub.

“We have had our best response to surveys when community elders endorse the project and support survey collection,” Ms Wright said. “The work involves travelling long distances, and we can sometimes have trips cancelled due to sorry or cultural business, or bad weather.

“There are so many community members keen to share their experiences.  We visit communities where English may be a second, third or fourth language, and the communities are on Aboriginal land where Aboriginal traditional owners are responsible for the management of their land.”

Vanessa Davis, senior Aboriginal researcher of Tangentyere Research Hub says, “It is great to be able to get the message out in central Australia of the important research in the Mayi Kuwayu Study. One of the parts that I love best about my work is working with remote communities and hearing their story. I like to break down the survey for people so they really understand the questions. I will speak Arrernte so people understand it.”

Ray Lovett at the finish line of the 2019 Boston Marathon.

Adds Ms Wright: “It is critical to have local Aboriginal partner organisations involved in the survey collection. It means our research follows and is respectful of local protocols. It means that we can use language speakers to collect survey responses. It is also very important for translating our research findings back to communities.”

Building strong community relationships gives the Mayi Kuwayu team the opportunity to support local health initiatives, such as the Hermannsburg (Ntaria)/Port Macquarie Bush to Beach exchange program, and the Thursday Island Running Festival.

The positive connection between physical activity and well-being is one that Lovett, a keen runner, knows well. In addition to training regularly with the Canberra Deadly Runners, he recently completed the Boston Marathon as part of the Indigenous Marathon Foundation’s fundraising team.

“For me, positive activities like ‘Deadly Running’ brings a sense of pride while also improving physical and mental health and well-being. Being involved with other mob in the community adds to my sense of connectedness to identity and culture,” Lovett said.

High-profile ambassadors pledge their support

The study is supported by a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ambassadors. These high-profile leaders come from a variety of backgrounds – academics, fitness gurus and entertainment superstars – but share a common goal: to promote the MK Study.

“We’ve known all along that if we’re a strong culture, if we’re a strong peoples, then our health is strong and our communities are enriched,” NITV presenter and MK ambassador John Paul Janke said. “Now we need the research, we need the data, the documentation to demonstrate that.”

Healthy lifestyle advocate Jeffrey Morgan says he is proud to promote MK because he believes in what the study is doing. “I want every single Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in the country to take part in this study,” he said. “I think it’s so important for us to get a true understanding of where we’re at. We know there are health issues, now it’s time to do something about that.”

For Carmen Parter of the Birra Gubba Nation, culture is fundamental to everything.

“It’s critical for community to be involved because you’ll have a chance to contribute towards influencing policy. This study is about creating change,” she said.

“Being part of the MK Study is optional,” says Lovett, “but I really encourage all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to do it as your responses will contribute to better services, programs and policies that will help our communities.”

“We will use the data to inform policy, particularly health and well-being policies. I imagine a day where a health policy will fund programs that will reconnect people to culture, to land, to country as a health program.”

The MK Study has no government involvement and is an Indigenous-led and governed source of information focused on informing policy and practices in an independent way.

Surveys can be completed via the national mail-out, online at https://mkstudy.com.au/the-survey/or phone 1800 531 600 (free call).

For more information visit: www.mkstudy.com.au

Facebook: @mayikuwayustudy

Twitter: Mayi_Kuwayu

Instagram: mayikuwayu