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World Social Justice Day

20 February 2024

Today is World Social Justice Day.

What does social justice mean in the context of mental distress and substance use? Actually, it means quite a lot, and awareness is important.

I was lucky enough to attend last years’ International Harm Reduction Conference in Melbourne. One powerful presentation was by an African American woman who proclaimed “Our people are not ‘vulnerable’. They are ‘targeted’!”

It was powerful oratory that I will always remember, and it shifts the paradigm. Social injustice can be measured or described in so many ways, some of which might almost seem to contradict each other. ‘We live in such an unfair society where poverty brings a myriad of negative outcomes and is very hard to get out of’ is very different from ‘My people have been systematically targeted by law enforcement, discriminatory/racist policies and other deadly forms of discrimination since we/you set foot on this land.” Both describe true and terrible circumstances. One evokes empathy, the other invokes anger. Both can motivate.

On World Social Justice Day, I don’t suppose it matters if you lean towards the accidental or intentional theory of injustice. What matters is that you challenge your own preconceptions, and challenge existing injustice, because the world is a very unjust place. In the Alcohol and Other Drugs world, it’s almost impossible to argue why alcohol should be freely available to all adults, and cannabis should be illegal. Both can be beneficial in moderation (consensus view), both can cause harms. There is no doubt that alcohol causes in orders of magnitude more harms than cannabis (4.5% of total burden of disease and injury in Australia vs 0.3% for cannabis).

Where does the stigma come from? Who decides, and why do they decide, that the Age Pension ($1,096 per fortnight) should be far more generous than the Newstart allowance ($749 per fortnight)? Who decides it should be financially advantageous to buy a property as an investment (negatively geared) rather than a home?

At First Step, in the end, these are moot points; there’s nothing we can do about them at the coal face. But, when approximately 50% of our clients with complex mental health grew up in out-of-home care, and an estimated 95% were sexually abused as children, it’s pretty hard to ignore systemic poverty. Perhaps the role of social justice awareness for us at First Step, for our staff and supporters, and our whole community, is to get fired up and stay motived.

Yes, the injustice has been done, but are we up to the challenge of helping now, in every conceivable way, to give people every chance to overcome? Will we stand by people, celebrating their resilience while they develop agency. Will we stay connected to that burning desire for justice, or will we burn out?

Patrick Lawrence
Chief Executive Officer