A Review of the Social and Emotional Wellbeing of Indigenous Australian Peoples – Considerations, Challenges and Opportunities

Darren Garvey


On February 13, 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Kevin Rudd, offered an apology to members of the Stolen Generation on behalf of the Parliament of Australia. The apology attracted words and gestures of gratitude, relief, pride and sorrow. For some, the words of the nation’s leader provided sufficient closure to a painful emotional wound created by their forced removal as children while for others the words were met more cautiously – judgment reserved until an idea of what was to come next was revealed [1].

Others saw the gesture as unnecessary or insufficient – irrelevant in contemporary Australia or not substantial enough [1]. Various professions were generally supportive in their comments [2, 3]. In a response titled ‘Let the healing begin’, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, spoke of the apology as an act of ‘hope, dignity and respect’, acknowledging the existence and impacts of past policies and practices of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families [4]. Reflecting upon his great grandmother’s experience, he stated that in the midst of often polarized opinion about the need, benefit or wisdom of an apology, that in essence the acknowledgment that it facilitated was about reinstating belonging for Indigenous people otherwise disconnected from family and country by prior policy and action. He couched the apology in terms of it representing an action that provided a place in which both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people might participate with a view to reconciling history in the present.

On June 22, 2007, the then Prime Minister, Mr John Howard announced plans for interventions in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory aimed at addressing the safety and wellbeing of the children of these communities. Opinions were once again polarized as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians responded to the details of the plan, announced as a ‘national emergency in remote Aboriginal communities’ [5]. The undisputed urgency of the situation outlined in the Ampe akelyernemane meke makarle – little children are sacred report (a catalyst for the intervention based on alarming levels of documented sexual abuse) were countered by calls for consultation and discussion with those communities targeted [6, 7]. What were regarded as excessive tactics in the initial roll-out of the plan by some, were seen by others as necessary to exert a strong presence under the circumstances [8].

Both of these events and their repercussions impact and involve in some way the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. The first, an apology, represents a particular step aimed at acknowledging ‘past mistreatments and a blemished chapter’ in our nation’s history with a view to reconciling Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to a better future. The second raises questions about how we treat and regard the current and future generations of Indigenous Australians and the role of non-Indigenous Australians within this venture. In terms of addressing what are long felt and more recent trauma for Indigenous people, both events attract a myriad of professional and stakeholder interpretations and general public views on how best to understand the issues and, in turn, what represent the best ways forward. Of course, the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australians is also an ordinary and everyday proposition – a concern negotiated in the midst of stressors that are at times similar to those facing the general population, and in circumstances more specific to Indigenous people. However, large scale and well publicized events and actions, such as those outlined above, can prompt a refocusing of attention on this aspect of Indigenous health. As well as what they reveal about the historical and contemporary contexts of Indigenous Australians, so too are we enlightened as to the broader attitudinal and practical milieu in which considerations and responses to the needs of Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing occur.

Aim of This Review

The following review aims to describe aspects of the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australian people and elements of the Australian contexts in which they live. A deliberate emphasis is made here to highlight major signposts, research findings and interventions concerning Indigenous people.1 A number of general and significant trends are identified in this review, but the diversity of Indigenous Australian experiences – both historically and in a contemporary sense – need to be acknowledged, as does its implications in considerations of competent and appropriate service provision2. In light of this, the review attempts to distill several considerations, challenges and opportunities for people involved in the area and for those considering more substantial involvement.

Indeed, the ability to delineate mental health research and other priorities can be challenging generally in a country such as Australia, with its ethnic diversity, a majority population descended from European settlers and a diverse, heterogeneous Indigenous population [9]. What is clear, however, is that the impact of problems relating to mental health exacts a tremendous burden on many in the Australian population – individually, socially and economically – and the need for clarity in terms of understanding and responses remains important for Indigenous Australian people specifically and the Australian population generally.

Structure of Review

The review begins by examining aspects of an ongoing debate concerning the terminology used in the context of discussing Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB). Subsequently, the consideration of this term by many Indigenous people to refer to what is more conventionally regarded as ‘mental health’ allows further exploration of some of the underlying and explicit tensions that exist within the area, beginning with matters of terminology, but extending to other challenges regarding appropriate service provision, policy, intervention and research priorities, and the means by which these practical and conceptual dilemmas might be resolved. What emerges is a picture of Indigenous SEWB that is at once stark in its account of the mental health problems prevalent among Indigenous people, yet encouraging in the resilience shown by Indigenous people in the face of such adversity. Promising too are the efforts made by a variety of health service and other professionals to better appreciate their roles in promoting good SEWB for Indigenous people and the exploration of the varied sites and opportunities in which such work can take place.

Read the Review Here (.pdf) External link


1 It is acknowledged that the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australian people has been considered in an international context, but this aspect is not the focus of this review.

2 For further demographic information about the Indigenous Australian population, go to: http://www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/html/html_overviews/overviews_our_context.htm#population External link

About the Author

Darren Garvey is an Indigenous professional with experience as a recipient and provider of services aimed at addressing the social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) needs of Indigenous people, and as an academic involved in the training of Indigenous and non-Indigenous professionals in providing such services.

Darren’s perspective as ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, and his professional interest in the development of a culturally competent workforce contributes to the narrative pursued in the review, and to the interplay of academic, policy and practical concerns.

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