The term social and emotional wellbeing is used by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to describe the social, emotional, spiritual, and cultural wellbeing of a person. The term recognises that connection to land, culture, spirituality, family, and community are important to people and can impact on their wellbeing. It also recognises that a person's social and emotional wellbeing is influenced by policies and past events.
Another term that is often used when discussing wellbeing is mental health. Mental health is a term that has been used a lot, mainly by non-Indigenous people, to describe how people think and feel, and how they cope with and take part in everyday life. People are often thought of as being mentally healthy when they don't have a mental illness (when people become unwell in the mind and it affects their thinking, feelings, and behaviour).
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people believe that mental health and mental illness focus too much on problems and don't properly describe all the factors that make up and influence wellbeing. Because of this, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people prefer the term social and emotional wellbeing as it fits well with a holistic view of health. The best way to understand these different terms is to think of mental health and mental illness as part of a person's social and emotional wellbeing.
There are many different factors that can impact on a person's social and emotional wellbeing. These can range from normal everyday stresses to major life events.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a number of events in the past have had a serious ongoing impact on their social and emotional wellbeing. These include dispossession from their lands (loss of lands), and the impact of the policies and actions that followed, such as the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and homelands.
Professor Helen Milroy, an Indigenous psychiatrist, describes three important themes to come from an analysis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history. They include: ‘the denial of humanity, the denial of existence and the denial of identity' (see Zubrick et al., 2005).
Also of importance to the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the general disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and adults in the areas of education, employment, income, and their overall position in Australian society. These areas, which are some of the important ‘social determinants of health', are linked with many other external stresses. These stresses include serious illnesses and disability, higher levels of death in the family/community, overcrowded houses, substance use problems, violence, discrimination and racism, trouble with police, and being sent to jail and/or having a family member who has been sent to jail.
The most serious mental health problems impacting on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are mental illnesses (also called mental disorders). There are many different mental illnesses that can affect a person's social and emotional wellbeing. These mental illnesses have been grouped together depending on their type. The main types of mental illnesses include:
Only a trained and qualified health professional can confirm whether someone has a mental illness. This decision is based on the person meeting a strict set of criteria (the person must show a certain number of signs/symptoms for a certain period of time). It is common for people to show some signs of a mental illness but not enough for them to have a mental illness. It is important that these people are also offered help and support because the signs/symptoms could get worse and really affect their social and emotional wellbeing.
In addition to mental illnesses/disorders, there are other problems that can impact on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These include:
While these problems are not mental illnesses, they can be a sign or symptom of a mental illness and have a serious impact on a person's social and emotional wellbeing.
As with health generally, it is very difficult to provide an overall ‘measure' of social and emotional wellbeing. Because of this, measurement tends to focus on the reasons why people are not mentally healthy, and the factors contributing to the reasons why their mental health is not so good.
Mental health problems - and the factors contributing to mental health problems - relate to individuals, but they are often measured by looking at their occurrence in a population. These measures attempt to give an overall picture of:
the impact of mental health problems, including death.
The exact extent of mental health problems among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is not known, but there is evidence that:
For a thorough review of the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, click here
For more information about mental health problems among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, click here
Australian Health Ministers. (2003). National Mental Health Plan 2003-2008. Canberra: Australian Government
Garvey, D. C. (2007). Indigenous identity in contemporary psychology: dilemmas, developments, directions (First ed.). Melbourne: Cengage Learning
Garvey, D. (2008). A review of the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australian peoples - considerations, challenges and opportunities. Retrieved September 2011 from http://www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/other-health-conditions/mental-health/reviews/our-review
Hunter, E. (1997). Double talk: changing and conflicting constructions of Indigenous mental health. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 31, 820-827
Hunter, E. (2004). Commonality, difference and confusion: changing constructions of Indigenous mental health [guest editorial], Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health, 3(3)
Swan, P., & Raphael, B. (1995). "Ways forward": national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health policy national consultancy report. Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing, Australia
Vicary, D., & Westerman, T. G. (2004). 'That's just the way he is': some implications of Aboriginal mental health beliefs, Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health, 3(3)
Zubrick, S. R., Silburn, S. R., Lawrence, D. M., Mitrou, F. G., Dalby, R. B., Blair, E. M., et al. (2005). The social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal children and young people: summary booklet (No. The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey, v. 2). Perth: Telethon Institute for Child Health Research and Curtin University of Technology