“My connection to Aboriginal culture really helped me feel whole and find that sense of family and connection. It was what I always wanted but didn’t have and was why I felt so empty.”
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, personal identity is often connected to culture, country, community, kin and family. These physical and spiritual connections can build and strengthen resilience, and social and emotional wellbeing.
Social and emotional wellbeing describes a holistic view of mental health and represents a whole-of-life view where wellbeing is tied to family, community and culture, as well as spiritual ties to ancestors and land.
These vital physical and spiritual connections can build and strengthen your resilience, and also encourage self-determination, community empowerment, restoration, and healing.
However, you can have problems with everyday things like money, jobs and housing that can impact your social and emotional wellbeing. On top of that, you might have to deal with racism, discrimination, bullying, gender-phobia, and social inequality.
If you are not feeling as good as you know you should be, or you and your family/friends aren’t coping with the sickness or death of someone close, then you might need to yarn with someone. You can take someone with you to join in the yarn.
You can yarn to someone at the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander medical or health service, or on the phone if you like, with the 24-hour helpline. You can also use online chat services.
It's important to look after yourself and make healthy choices that can help you to feel good. There are ideas on keeping well on our meaningful life section on this website.
If you want to reach out for help but aren't sure where to start, you may find this information on seeking support helpful.
There are things you can do to support yourself. We have resources below to help you get started.
I’ve lost members of my family to suicide, and my sister also struggles with mental illness. The strength that we get from our people is so important. It’s pretty tough when you feel like you’re the only one out there feeling this way.
I’m heavily involved in my local indigenous community here in Gippsland. It’s a strong community of Kurnai people. A community gives you structure, and it helps you feel better by helping others too.
I want to let people know that it’s okay to talk to someone when you’re feeling unwell. The perceptions within the Aboriginal communities are not going to change so you have to find a way that works for you. It can be hard to find someone who you feel won’t tell your business everywhere.
I’ve been unwell on and off all my life, but it was really hard to pin down. Issues would come and go. There were so many things happening to me that I couldn’t explain. I didn’t start looking for a diagnosis till my late thirties.
Supporting another person
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing combines mental, physical, cultural, and spiritual health of the individual as well as the whole community. For many Aboriginal people, country and self are not separate. The land is a physical representation of spirituality, culture, and all aspects of human interaction.
For this reason, the term "social and emotional wellbeing" is usually preferred over terms like "mental health" and "mental illness".
Addressing social and emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples calls for the recognition of human rights, the strength of family, and the recognition of cultural diversity. This includes language, kinship, traditional lifestyles, and geographical locations (urban, rural, and remote).
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander identity is about heritage, culture, upbringing, connection, and life experiences. Within these populations, there are many languages and cultures, each with their own way of understanding and addressing issues around social and emotional wellbeing.
If you are concerned that someone you know who identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is struggling with their wellbeing, there are things you can be mindful of to make your support more meaningful. Providing a culturally safe environment, being respectful of culture, and being aware of how you respond are important first steps. It can be helpful to involve family, carers, or other community members in providing support.
If you want to support someone and don't know where to start, take a look at our pages on support for carers and how to support someone.
We also have resources below to help you get started.
A closer look
Specialised services can help rural remote and regional people
79% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in and around major cities and regional areas. However, 21% living in remote or very remote areas find it difficult to access social and emotional wellbeing programs, when needed. Where available, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Medical services, or an Identified Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander worker in a local health service, can help. Online and telephone services also provide specialised support 24/7. (Source)
Intergenerational trauma can affect social and emotional wellbeing
Colonisation led to the displacement of people from their traditional lands and the forced removal of children from their families and communities. This in turn has disrupted the very foundations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, kinship, and tradition. The resulting trauma, grief and loss impact past, present, and future generations. Children can be directly affected by high levels of psychological distress, social and emotional disadvantage, and can experience or witness high levels of death, imprisonment, violence and suicide. (Source)
Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience racism, discrimination and bullying
The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey found that 22% of 12–17-year-olds reported experiencing racism in the 6 months prior to the survey - putting them at a higher risk of behavioural difficulties. Experiences of racism and discrimination can also impact on how young people see themselves, and therefore on their identity formation. (Source)
TRANSGENERATIONAL LOSS AND TRAUMA
Colonisation and the subsequent marginalisation and hardship has had long and lasting impacts on generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. Repeated generational trauma is sometimes referred to as ‘malignant grief’ and refers to experiences that result from a complex interaction between biological, social, and psychological factors over a lifespan and across generations. (Source)
INCREASED RISK FOR POOR SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL WELLBEING
A 2012/23 self-report survey on indicators such as happiness, calmness, and fullness of life among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people showed that these populations were three times more likely than other Australians to experience high to very high levels of psychological distress. These figures were increased again among those who were female, living in non-remote areas, or with lower levels of education and employment. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have limited access to support and specialised mental health services. (Source 1) (Source 2)
ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER PEOPLE WHO IDENTIFY AS LGBTI ARE LIKELY TO HAVE COMPOUNDED RISK
While there is much research to support the increased risks to wellbeing for people who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, and for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, there is very little research and statistics on wellbeing of people who identify as both. Effects of known risk factors for both groups merit more thorough research into how the wellbeing of LGBTI Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can be better supported. (Source)
You might find online and phone-based mental health resources helpful. Some suggestions are below. You can find more with our Search tool (opens in a new tab).