Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Indigenous Australian well-being

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Indigenous Australian wellbeing:
What are the components of Indigenous Australian wellbeing?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1: Mungo man has been anthropologically assessed to reveal an age of 40,000 years

How do you define your own wellbeing? Wellbeing is complex because it is highly reflective of our cultural context[1]. But, in its most simplistic form, one might condense wellbeing into the thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that if engaged in, promote wellness on a highly personal level. The wellbeing of Australian Indigenous populations, is no different. Their wellbeing is a complex and highly diverse interplay of multiple social, environmental, and cultural factors. However, there are notable differences in expression, primarily that Indigenous Australian wellbeing is highly holistic in nature. Despite the multiple dimensions of Indigenous wellbeing, these holistic requirements are not being satisfied, causing suffering[2].

In 1979, the Australian House Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs noted that in the "Release of reports reflecting the poor state of Indigenous well-being is historically followed with outrage and shock, calling for immediate attention. However, these reports tend to have no real impact and the appalling state of Indigenous well-being is soon forgotten"; or at least until the next report[3]. The same sentiment is still felt today and Indigenous wellbeing continues to suffer.

This chapter explores wellbeing within the context of Indigenous Australia, critically analysing why wellbeing is poorer in Indigenous Australian populations, and will conclude with a segment proposing new ways towards achieving wellbeing based on Indigenous-led recommendation and empirical research.

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Focus questions:

  1. What is the definition of Indigenous Australian wellbeing?
  2. What are the core components of the Indigenous wellbeing crisis?
  3. What are some social determinants of the Indigenous wellbeing crisis?
  4. How can schemes improve future wellbeing & what does the future hold?

Case study: Mungo Man

The Wilandra Lakes Regions in NSW is home to Australia's famous "Mungo Man" (see figure 1), a forensic anthropological find in 1974. A week of torrential rain loosened the dirt around Mungo Lake lunette revealing Australia's oldest human remains and caused a stir in scientific circles. This find wasn't just significant for the scientific community; it was one of many finds which indefinitely prove Indigenous Australian land ownership, building a file of evidence to overturn Terra Nullius. It placed Indigenous Australians a step closer to native rights and helped prove that 1788 was an invasion, not a colonisation. Mungo man reminds modern Australians that Indigenous culture is a large part of Australia's collective identity; an identity to protect and one such identity currently under threat by poorer wellbeing.

Definitions[edit | edit source]

Figure 2: A corroboree of Indigenous Australian men, presumably engaging in community rituals.

What is wellbeing for Indigenous Australia?[edit | edit source]

The Oxford dictionary defines wellbeing as "The state of being comfortable, healthy, & happy". Nevertheless, wellbeing can be a challenging concept to define due to its cultural variation. Some consider wellbeing to encompass experiencing a high Quality of Life (QoL) operationalised by a variety of outcomes like mental health, community connection (see figure 2), and even level of pain. However, this chapter will look at wellbeing through the scope of Indigenous contexts, and therefore wellbeing is considered to encompass a holistic framework. Holistic wellbeing is defined as including physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social wellbeing of an individual. This model is not only empirically supported, but its five dimensions best fit a traditional Indigenous Australian lifestyle. The holistic nature of indigenous wellbeing demands a community-centred approach across the lifespan, a place on country, and traditional knowledge (Department of Health, 2013[4]). Historical evidence suggest that prior to invasion, Indigenous Australians were free of illness such as heart disease, hypertension, obesity, and mental illness. Significant historical events such as the stolen generation and genocides, have resulted in transgenerational trauma, and while Indigenous wellbeing is attainable, Australia has a long way to go before reaching wellbeing equality. Therefore, Indigenous wellbeing should follow Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing[5], embodying the five dimensions of holistic wellbeing[6].

Test your knowledge!

1 _______ is a dimension of holistic wellbeing:

Community connection
Mental illness

2 _______ trauma has played a role in poor wellbeing


3 Sam feels connected to her community and her faith. Sam probably experiences good______&______ wellbeing

Physical, spiritual
Physical, mental
Spiritual, mental
Social, Spiritual

The Indigenous wellbeing crisis[edit | edit source]

Figure 3: Heroin stash kept in tin box. Drugs cripple Indigenous communities, particularly remote ones (Ward, nd)

A multitude of contemporary and historical factors have created a wellbeing crisis crippling the wellbeing of Indigenous communities. To illustrate this crisis, for the last century, the mortality rate of Indigenous Australians is at least 10 years earlier than their non-indigenous counterparts. There is a clear burden of mental illness and substance abuse accounting for 19% of all mortality[7]. Mental illness is a primary concern in Indigenous communities, with over 3,000 deaths per year being the result of suicide. Moreover, Australia's Indigenous male youth have the highest rate of suicide in the world[8]. These extreme rates of mental illness are incredibly alarming and can be attributed to poor holistic wellbeing[9]. Drug-related problems (see figure 3) are concerning, with children as young as 12 having been exposed to class A drugs, subsequently increasing the risk of contracting HIV and Hepatitis C[10]. Mental illness and substance abuse are closely followed by injuries (15%), and cardiovascular diseases accounting for 12% of all deaths, which is three times higher than non-Indigenous populations.

Part of what makes this wellbeing crisis difficult to target is that wellbeing is tied to living on country, which often requires a degree of remoteness. However, this remoteness makes optimal health and education difficult to achieve (see case study: Wilcannia). At the same time, growing urbanisation also increases health disparities, due to a lack of connection to culture. So while remoteness plays a role in health inequality, urban living is often just as detrimental[11].

Finally, incarceration rates among Indigenous populations are at record numbers. Indigenous Australians make up 3.3% of the total Australian population, but account for 27% of total incarcerated Australians. This rate is reflective of the innumerable wellbeing risk factors correlating with justice-involvement. Therefore, it is entirely conceivable that incarceration contributes to the growing gaps in wellbeing among Indigenous Australian's. Shepard and colleagues[12] assessed this incarceration gap finding that educational attainment was positively correlated with lower incarceration. This study also reported a correlation between substance abuse and incarceration, supporting a link between substance use, education and jail time. More alarming studies revealed that 48% of all juveniles in detention were Indigenous, which was also linked to lower education and remoteness. Educations link to poorer wellbeing is discussed further in the next section.

Case study: Wilcannia's health crisis

Wilcannia is a small Australian town situated in North Western NSW. The town is roughly 74% Indigenous, primarily from the Barkindji nation. Even in 2021, Wilcannia is still a 'segregated' town; Indigenous community members living on its outskirts, despite being an ethnic majority in the township. It comes as no surprise, then, that wellbeing in Wilcannia has been suffering for a number of decades. The 2016 census revealed the average life expectancy of a Wilcannian male to be 37 years. High mortality rates are attributed to otherwise easily treatable pathologies such as heart attacks and nutritional diseases. Wilcannia also has a high crime rate. In the 2006 census, Wilcannia reported 95.3 domestic violence assaults per 1000. In comparison, neighbouring town Menindee[3]has rates of 26.0.

Wilcannia demonstrates the wellbeing statistics of a third-world country but is less than 800km from Australias capital, Canberra. Wilcannia is an illustrative example of the wellbeing crisis referred to in this chapter.

Social determinants of wellbeing[edit | edit source]

On average, Indigenous Australians live shorter, and typically, unhealthier lives. But why is this the case? In exploring various barriers, it is clear that social determinants of health (SDoH) pose major hurdles for the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. SDoH include access to education, economic stability, neighbourhood factors, as well as social & community contexts. In this section, we will explore education, economics through the class system, and finally, prejudice in social contexts.

Prejudice & classism[edit | edit source]

Figure 4: Remote living perpetuates poor wellbeing

Prejudice is holding assumptions about a particular individual based on their membership to a specific group. Often, prejudice is associated with privilege and class. Ongoing salient prejudices held against Indigenous Australian's are responsible for the development of damaging stereotypes. Common stereotypes such as “All Indigenous people are ‘lazy’ or ‘violent’ ”, create what is known as self-fulfilling prophecies, damaging mental and emotional wellbeing[13]. Such attitudes subsequently prohibit social change as a proportion of non-Indigenous Australians simply don't believe in equal rights[14]. The Victorian Attitudes of Race and Cultural Diversity (VARCD) & the Localities Embracing and Accepting Diversity (LEAD) surveys reported that young adults are aware of their privilege and associated prejudices, but demonstrate a reluctance to reflect or make reparations. Moreover, between 9-13% of non-Indigenous Australians believed Aboriginals were an inferior race. What is incredibly concerning is that these figures are escalating. For example, in 2008, approximately 9% of Indigenous Australian's believed they themselves were inferior to non-Indigenous Australians, and in 2014, this figure had increased to 19%[15].

Classist attitudes are similarly important, particularly when assessing where prejudice is geographically potent. Income and education are correlates of prejudice, as discussed earlier in this chapter. Tolerant attitudes tend to be higher in upper middle classes; those with higher income and education. Therefore, people with higher education are more likely to recognise wellbeing inequities and act accordingly, for example, reflecting on their privilege (VARCD, 2013). An important distinction is that lower socioeconomic status (SES) populations tend to live in rural and remote parts of Australia, like their Indigenous counterparts. So it comes as no surprise that some of the worst Indigenous wellbeing outcomes are geographically correlated with lower non-Indigenous SES households. Studies report that working-class Australians generally endorse a more ideological disposition of society, aligning more with right-wing authoritarianism (RWA)[16]. This attitude is consistent with higher prejudice and racism in remote areas (figure 4), where towns are often segregated into "white and black", even when the ethnic majority is Indigenous (see case study: Wilcannia). These findings are significant because they highlight a fundamental attitudinal barrier to better wellbeing; that classist attitudes foster prejudice, facilitating further community divide and overall poorer wellbeing.

Independent skills task 1: There are innumerable SDoH contributing to the wellbeing crisis. Using the resources here, address two or more additional determinants of poor Indigenous wellbeing.

Education[edit | edit source]

As highlighted, poorer education is experienced by those who live rurally, regardless of ethnicity. Although, poorer education has vastly different implications for Indigenous communities. For example, we know that poorer education fosters RWA and ideological attitudes of a 'white' Australia. But poorer education in Indigenous communities doesn't directly result in racism, rather it impacts overall wellbeing through decision making. In the case that Indigenous children receive poor or no education, making educated choices on health outcomes becomes less likely, and ultimately poor choices, like substance abuse, become norm driven. Across Australia, drop out rates are incredibly high, a Closing the Gap report indicating that remote and very remote communities, see a 20% and 30% discrepancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendees[17]. What highlights the desperate need for better school attendance is that education can improve life expectancy by up to 12 years[18]. But, it is not as simple as informing Indigenous youth on the risks of drugs, sex, and alcohol. Rather, evidence demonstrates that Indigenous communities benefit greatly from traditional education[19], for example, teaching traditional land practices (see case study: Looking forward by looking back).

Schemes in Indigenous wellbeing[edit | edit source]

Figure 5: The five dimensions of Indigenous Australian wellbeing.

It is clear that the wellbeing of Indigenous communities is in crisis mode, and although there have been many steps towards improving their wellbeing, such as Closing the Gap interventions, there is still a long way to go. In contemporary Australia, programs are often developed to improve Indigenous wellbeing by applying frameworks with a foot holding in modern psychology. Psychological theories are useful in many cases because they encompass many aspects of the human experience[20]. However, while psychological frameworks can be moulded to 'fit' Indigenous needs, they inevitably apply rigid notions of wellbeing to populations that are incredibly fluid.

An alternate solution to supporting these communities would be to implement programs that support living on country. The benefits of living on country can have an invaluable impact on Indigenous wellbeing[21]. As discussed, increasing urbanisation is linked to decreased wellbeing in Indigenous communities, and living on country has long been identified as a fundamental component of Indigenous wellbeing[22]. Particularly because it enables full engagement in all five dimensions of wellbeing. This is in contrast to a previously held rigid ideology of holistic wellbeing, which better suits individualist cultures (see figure 5). As mentioned earlier in this chapter, geography does raise considerable concern because it is often associated with poor access to health services, among other vital wellbeing contributors. However, initiatives that are designed purposefully to return Indigenous populations back to country, have demonstrated utility. A prime example of this is 'The Indigenous Protective Areas scheme' (IPA)[23], which supports Indigenous communities in managing their land for conservation purposes.

Indigenous Protective Areas scheme

Developed in 1996, the IPA is present in 25 communities across Australia. The reason schemes such as the IPA are better suited to Indigenous communities, is that they enable an incredibly important aspect of Indigenous wellbeing to take place, and that is a symbiotic relationship between the land and the people. This is a fundamental aspect of Indigenous culture and promotes wellbeing.

Such acts in conservation have a twofold effect. One, country is traditionally managed through traditional practice which, has been scientifically proved to be beneficial to the environment and two, traditional practice enables holistic wellbeing to take place. Reports from 25 communities using an IPA, found that there is a range of benefits on social, cultural, environmental, and economic levels. Reports found that 95% of communities reported economic benefits. The reports also found that 74% of communities found a reduction of substance abuse and improved wellbeing in the family unit. The IPA scheme has the capacity to positively influence wellbeing Australia-wide with higher efficacy than other models in holistic wellbeing.

Finally, in assessing how useful and appropriate the IPA was in the eyes of Indigenous participants, most communities praised the initiative stating that it allowed them to establish "connection to country, care for country and pass on traditional knowledge"; in other words, connection to country bolstered wellbeing through traditional ways of knowing, being and doing.

The Importance of Land

When asked, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people draw attention to the importance of relationships with country (Government Department of health, 2013). The relationship between people and their country is rarely considered in policy development, and this is reflected in the state of Indigenous wellbeing. Each person belongs to a piece of land through the kinship and totem system (see figure 6).

This provides a deep sense of identity, purpose, and belonging, fostering holistic wellbeing. In an interview for the 'First Peoples Exhibit at the National Gallery' in Sydney, Australia, Dhanggal Gurruwiwi, from Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory, eloquently illustrates this tie to wellbeing:

“In our kinship system, as a custodian, I’m the child of that land...a person dies of grief...their soul has been torn; just like the earth moving equipment tears the land".

Independent skills task 2: Using the resources here, explore the positives and negatives of deurbanisation in Indigenous populations.

The future of Indigenous wellbeing[edit | edit source]

As discussed earlier in this chapter, Indigenous wellbeing is dynamic, relying heavily on connection to country to achieve wellbeing. Fortunately, the causes of poorer wellbeing are not mysterious, and therefore, ways forward to achieve equal wellbeing are not either. The focal point to restoring Indigenous wellbeing is the restoration of culture and cultural practice through living on country.

Connection to country

The land serves Indigenous communities as a point of spirituality through ancestral and totemic ties, as an anchor for ritual practice and living, and as an important factor in the continuation of language. By making it easier for Indigenous communities to access traditional ways of knowing, being, and doing, through county, wellbeing will improve. The involvement in land management results in increased physical activity, less alcohol, and illicit substance use, greater access to bush foods, and reduced takeaway foods (Burgess et al., 2009[4]). This is particularly evident in the results of the IPA. Research has also found that engagement in traditional practice promotes group cohesion and reduces violence (Day & Fransisco, 2013[5]). Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s knowledge and skills in land management might improve autonomy, identity, and feelings of control. Furthermore, community elders should hold a role in the education of traditional ways, given the hierarchical nature of traditional group dynamics. Addressing these factors may combat underlying wellbeing concerns which reflect a profound loss of disempowerment (Kingsley et al., 2013[6]). For more information on why a connection to country is necessary in wellbeing, see the case study "Looking forward by looking back".

Case study: Looking forward by looking back

In August 2021 an article about caring for country was published by CBR City News. The article detailed the work a Wiradjuri woman, Dhani Gilbert, has done to care for country in the Ngunnawal region (Canberra). Ms. Gilbert reported how growing up on country, learning the traditional way of caring for country from her parents, including cultural burning, edible and medicinal plant types, and wildlife care methods impacted her overall wellbeing.

"Growing up I was surrounded by caring-for-country practices taught to me by the community" - Ms. Gilbert.

Dhani's childhood is an illustrative example of how the passing on of tradition from language to practice, fosters wellbeing. Dhani's story of living a culturally relevant childhood, and now, life as a young adult, is reflective of how simple it is to put an end to the wellbeing crisis across Australia. The article continues to explore how Indigenous ways of knowing have changed land care management, particularly after the 2019-2020 bushfires. Caring for the land is an integral role in Indigenous wellbeing, but also in caring for Australia as a nation, preserving the wellbeing of all Australians; Indigenous or not. Dhani is lucky to have grown up immersed in her rich heritage. This should not be a rarity, rather, Australia should work towards becoming a nation that embraces Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing. [7]

Figure 6: Connection to country enables totemic ties, such as specific animals like this dragon.

Considering the profound impact country has on wellbeing, actions to resolve the wellbeing crisis should almost exclusively utilise traditional ways of knowing, being, and doing. That is to say that Indigenous wellbeing programs and strategies should exclude western notions of wellbeing unless deemed appropriate by Indigenous communities. The IPA scheme is an eloquent illustration of such a program that can restore wellbeing in Indigenous communities. This scheme highlights the importance of country, but also provides foundations for future schemes and programs in improving wellbeing, and the opportunity to heal.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Indigenous wellbeing is a complex interplay between the five dimensions of holistic wellbeing: Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social wellness. In understanding the holistic nature of Indigenous wellbeing, Australia can strive towards improving the health outcomes of Indigenous communities that are currently suffering. This is evident across many remote communities, such as Wilcannia, where recent ABS reports illustrate an emerging wellbeing crisis. Some key considerations must be made if future schemes, such as the IPA, are developed. Firstly, Australia must listen to the needs of Indigenous communities. Secondly, programs should be Indigenous-lead and developed. Lastly, great efforts should be taken to preserve and protect country in the hopes that such land will one day be included on the growing list of native titles and traditional ownership. There appears to be sufficient evidence suggesting that Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing, and connection to country can have a long-lasting impact on holistic wellbeing. [grammar?]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "How the Environment We Create is a Reflection of Our State of Mind | Psychology Today Australia". Retrieved 2021-10-01.
  2. Spirits, Jens Korff, Creative (2021-07-13). "Mental health and Aboriginal people". Creative Spirits. Retrieved 2021-10-01.
  3. "House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs Inquiry into Aboriginal Access to Legal Aid". The Aboriginal Child at School 7 (2): 62–63. 1979-04. doi:10.1017/s0310582200010427. ISSN 0310-5822. 
  4. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing (2013). National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2013-2023. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health and Agein
  5. Martin, Karen; Mirraboopa, Booran (2003-01). "Ways of knowing, being and doing: A theoretical framework and methods for indigenous and indigenist re‐search". Journal of Australian Studies 27 (76): 203–214. doi:10.1080/14443050309387838. ISSN 1444-3058. 
  6. "Oral health of Australian Indigenous children compared to non-Indigenous children enrolled in school dental services". Australian Dental Journal 59 (3): 395-400. 2014-08-22. doi:10.1111/adj.12205. ISSN 0045-0421. 
  7. Korff, J. (2019). Aboriginal suicide rates. Creative Spirits.
  8. "Young Indigenous men have highest suicide rate in world". 2016-08-11. Retrieved 2021-08-31.
  9. MacMillan, Thomas E. (2015-06-15). "Once woken". Canadian Medical Association Journal 187 (11): E361–E361. doi:10.1503/cmaj.150526. ISSN 0820-3946. 
  10. "Drugs and crime | nidirect". 2015-11-11. Retrieved 2021-08-27.
  11. Contemporary Indigenous Research within Sámi and Global Indigenous Studies Contexts. BRILL. 2021-04-24. pp. 7–32. 
  12. Shepherd, Stephane M.; Spivak, Ben; Ashford, Linda J.; Williams, Isabel; Trounson, Justin; Paradies, Yin (2020-05-18). "Closing the (incarceration) gap: assessing the socio-economic and clinical indicators of indigenous males by lifetime incarceration status". BMC Public Health 20 (1): 710. doi:10.1186/s12889-020-08794-3. ISSN 1471-2458. PMID 32423391. PMC PMC7236374.
  13. "Oral health of Australian Indigenous children compared to non-Indigenous children enrolled in school dental services". Australian Dental Journal 59 (3): 395–400. 2014-08-22. doi:10.1111/adj.12205. ISSN 0045-0421. 
  14. Begby, Endre (2021-03-18). The Psychology of Stereotypes. Oxford University Press. pp. 26–42. 
  15. Jelfs, Paul (2016-11-14). The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enumeration and engagement strategies: challenges and future options. ANU Press. 
  16. Carvacho, H., Zick, A., Haye, A., González, R., Manzi, J., Kocik, C., & Bertl, M. (2013). On the relation between social class and prejudice: The roles of education, income, and ideological attitudes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(4), 272-285.
  17. Retrieved 2021-09-25. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  18. Hart, Michael B; Moore, Michael J; Laverty, Martin (2017-07). "Improving Indigenous health through education". Medical Journal of Australia 207 (1): 11–12. doi:10.5694/mja17.00319. ISSN 0025-729X. 
  19. Unuigbe, Ngozi Finette (2021-01-23). Why traditional ecological knowledge matters. Routledge. pp. 17–26. 
  20. Engaging Indigenous students: The important relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their teachers. Cambridge University Press. 2019-12-24. pp. 272–293. 
  21. Watts, Elizabeth; Carlson, Glenys (2002-11). "Practical strategies for working with indigenous people living in Queensland, Australia". Occupational Therapy International 9 (4): 277–293. doi:10.1002/oti.169. ISSN 0966-7903. 
  22. 1985-, Ganesharajah, Cynthia, (2009). Indigenous health and wellbeing: the importance of country. Native Title Research Unit, Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. ISBN 978-0-85575-669-7. OCLC 318869128. 
  23. Ross, H.; Grant, C.; Robinson, C.J.; Izurieta, A.; Smyth, D.; Rist, P. (2009-12-01). "Co-management and Indigenous protected areas in Australia: achievements and ways forward". Australasian Journal of Environmental Management 16 (4): 242–252. doi:10.1080/14486563.2009.9725240. ISSN 1448-6563. 

External links[edit | edit source]

Interview recording: Joe Williams "Aboriginal Social and Emotional wellbeing"

Interview video: Uncle Bob Randell "Oursness"