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What mental health means to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

The concept of mental health can vary between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.

Non-Aboriginal people will generally take a clinical perspective and categorise mental health as an illness. Treatment generally focuses on the individual and how they experience and interact with their environment.

Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities prefer to define mental health as ‘social and emotional wellbeing’. This holistic concept recognises the importance of the complex connection to land, culture, spirituality, ancestry, family and community. It also recognises the unique strengths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, especially the role extended family and community can play in healing practices. This lens will help to contextualise how the loss of land and family through colonisation and oppression has resulted in a loss of identity for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Note

‘[The] Aboriginal concept of health is holistic, encompassing mental health and physical, cultural, and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing … Crucially, it must be understood that when the harmony of these interrelations is disrupted, Aboriginal ill health will persist.’

Ways Forward: National Consultancy Report On Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are diverse with many perspectives

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are culturally and linguistically diverse and not all families and communities share the same concept of mental health. It is important to learn the unique story of the family and community being worked with. Seek advice from the family, community, Elders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practitioners to best understand how the community might approach concepts of social and emotional wellbeing and mental health. Ask how they talk about mental health issues — suicide, depression, stress — and let their language guide the approach. A shared language leads to shared understanding.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives on wellbeing

Watch this video from the Australian mental health and wellbeing initiative, KidsMatter.

Aboriginal perspectives on wellbeing

Facts about mental health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities

  • Indigenous Queenslanders make up 4.3 per cent of Queensland’s population.
  • Almost half of all Indigenous Queenslanders are under 20 years of age.
  • Most Indigenous Queenslanders live in regional centres (51.4 per cent) and major cities (31.8 per cent). About 16.9 per cent live in remote and very remote areas.
  • Indigenous Queenslanders experience more ill-health and disability than non-Indigenous Queenslanders and are more likely to die at a younger age. This disparity is known as the ‘health gap’.
  • Mental illness is the highest contributor (20 per cent) to the Indigenous burden of disease in Queensland.
  • Indigenous Queenslanders comprise 7.7 per cent of individuals hospitalised with a mental disorder (Queensland Health, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health Strategy 2016-2021).

Mental health and young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

Disconnection from cultural practices, traditions and roles has caused enduring hurt to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s identity and sense of belonging to family and community. Compromised mental health and wellbeing can have a direct impact on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are raised.

According to the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, almost a third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people experience high or very high levels of distress, which is more than twice the rate of other young Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are more likely to be hospitalised for mental health and behavioural problems including schizophrenia, alcohol issues and trauma related mental health difficulties.

Rates of suicide among young Aboriginal Australians are reported as some of the highest in the world. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are dying by suicide at a national average of 90.8 deaths per 100,000 population, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 15-19 years of age are completing suicide at rates markedly higher than non-Aboriginal children of the same age — 5.9 times higher for girls and 4.4 times higher for boys. This signals that the mental health of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is in crisis.

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