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What is depression?

Depression is about a person’s state of mood. When a person has depression (often called clinical depression) they feel very low in mood (sad, unhappy, or ‘down in the dumps’) and also lose interest in activities they used to gain happiness from.

It is normal for people to feel sad every once in a while, but clinical depression is very different from the occasional feeling of sadness. There are several ways clinical depression differs from the occasional feeling of sadness, they include:

When people feel sad or ‘down’ for a long time, usually for longer than 2 weeks, they may be depressed. Depression can affect anyone at any age.

What are the signs and symptoms of depression?

There are a number of signs or symptoms people may show when they have depression. People do not have to have all of them to be diagnosed with depression. The signs and symptoms of depression can include any of the following:

Does the understanding of depression differ between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?

Depression needs to be seen within the wider scope of the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; this means looking more holistically at health. The warning signs for depression in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may vary between communities, so it is vital that the people working in the area of social and emotional wellbeing are aware of the different languages and understandings used by individual communities when talking about depression.

What are the risk factors for depression?

The factors that can contribute to depression include:

A person’s personality can also be a risk factor for depression. People who are: anxious or worry easily; unassertive (people who do not stand up for themselves); negative and self-critical (people who see themselves in a negative way); or shy and have low self-esteem (lack confidence) are at a higher risk of depression than people who do not have these types of personalities.

How common is depression among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

The most recent information on the levels of depression in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population comes from the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey. This survey of people from across Australia measured psychological distress (mental or emotional pain), which is often linked with feelings of anxiety or depression. Nearly one-third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 15 years reported having high to very high levels of psychological distress. This was more than twice the levels reported for other Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women reported these levels of stress more than men. It is often hard to know how common depression is in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, however, because of the way people understand depression and their cultural understanding of mental illness.

How do you treat depression?

There are many different ways to help people suffering from depression. People need to know that they do not have to put up with the feelings of depression. It is important to be supportive and encourage people to seek help from doctors, counsellors, Aboriginal Health Workers, or staff at the local Aboriginal medical service.

Medical treatments for depression can involve:

Other tips for managing depression include:

If the treatment is not working, it is important that people discuss this with their doctor, counsellor, or other mental health professional so that other options can be explored.

Please note the term ‘mental illness’ has been used in place of ‘mental disorder’ and ‘psychological disorder’ because it is a more common term.

References and further reading

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social survey, 2008. from

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2011) The health and welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: an overview 2011. (AIHW Catalogue no IHW 42) Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Central Australian Rural Practitioners Association (2010) CARPA standard treatment manual [5th ed.]. 5th ed. Alice Springs: Central Australian Rural Practitioners Association

Freeman D, Freeman B (2009) Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing fact sheet series. Campbelltown, NSW: Campbelltown Community Mental Health Service (SSWAHS)

Lifeline Australia (2009) Help when you're feeling down. Deakin, ACT: Lifeline Australia

Mental Health First Aid Training and Research Program (2008) Depression: guidelines for providing mental health first aid to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person. Melbourne: Mental Health First Aid

Moylan CA (2009) Treating depression: towards an Indigenous psychotherapy. James Cook University, Brisbane

Nagel T, Apuatimi A (2008) Depression. Darwin: Menzies School of Health Research

NSW Chronic Care for Aboriginal People Program (2010) Depression - beating the blues. Sydney: NSW Department of Health

© Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet 2013 
This product, excluding the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet logo, artwork, and any material owned by a third party or protected by a trademark, has been released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) licence. Excluded material owned by third parties may include, for example, design and layout, images obtained under licence from third parties and signatures.


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    Last updated: 19 May 2016
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