Bridging A Gap: Indigenous Australians and Mental Health

January 26 is Australia Day, a day of celebration for some, but for many Indigenous Australians, it’s a national day of mourning. 

For those outside of Australia, this date marks the anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788 into what is now Sydney Harbour, which, for many obvious reasons, holds a starkly different meaning for Indigenous Australians.

It serves as a painful reminder of invasion, dispossession, and oppression, often referred to as Invasion Day, Survival Day, or the Day of Mourning. For Indigenous communities, this date has become a platform for protest, resistance, and solidarity while also recognising the resilience of their cultures.


The historical context has lasting impacts that have manifested in several ways, but none more so than on the mental health of Indigenous Australians, leading to higher rates of mental health issues and suicide compared to non-Indigenous Australians. 



These challenges stem from the deep-seated effects of colonisation, trauma, discrimination, substance misuse (individually or within their social circle), and disadvantage – all contributing to elevated rates of mental health concerns, mortality, suicide, violent antisocial behaviour, child removals, legal issues, and incarceration within Indigenous communities. 

These social determinants of health play a significant role. The structural disadvantages stemming from social policy, economic systems, and the distribution of power and resources disadvantage Indigenous Australians from access to fairer healthcare, education, work, housing, and more – primarily responsible for health disparities. 

The Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted the last health survey in 2018 and 2019 on the mental well-being of Indigenous communities across Australia. It concluded that:


  • An estimated 24% of Indigenous Australians reported having a diagnosed mental health or behavioural condition. 31% of Indigenous adults reported ‘high or very high’ levels of psychological distress.


Another health study completed in 2020 concluded….


  • Indigenous Australians (all genders) experience depression (52%) and anxiety (59%) at much higher levels than their non-Indigenous counterparts (32% and 47%). 


However, there are some health outcomes have significantly improved for Indigenous Australians. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported in a recent study on mortality rate that..


  • Indigenous males born in 2015-2017 could expect to live 71.6 years, and Indigenous females 75.6 years. 
  • Indigenous death rates have been falling in most age groups over the past 10 years, with the median age at death increasing from 56.5 in 2010 to 61.0 in 2020. 



While mental health services are crucial, current approaches often focus on treating conditions as they arise rather than preventing them. Early access to appropriate services, however, can significantly mitigate these challenges and can be addressed through a range of measures aimed at fostering emotional and social well-being within Indigenous communities. 


Some examples include: 

  • Customary healing – ceremonies aimed at spiritual healing can work with mainstream treatment to battle mental health problems. 
  • Social connectedness – developing a sense of belonging through Indigenous Australians ’ relationships with their family, community, and country equips them with support, identity, and resilience.
  • Connection to land: culture, spirituality, and ancestry is drawn from a holistic view of health that encompasses the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions. Indigenous Australians draw strength and healing from their connection to the land, cultural heritage, spirituality, and ancestors.
  • Living on or near traditional lands: Indigenous Australians who live on or near their traditional lands have better access to their cultural resources and practices, as well as lower levels of stress and discrimination.
  • Self-determination and community governance – Indigenous Australians who have control over their own lives and communities have higher levels of empowerment, autonomy, and self-esteem, which are essential for mental health.
  • Passing on of cultural practices – Indigenous Australians who participate in and share their cultural practices, such as ceremonies, languages, arts, and stories, have a stronger sense of identity, belonging, and continuity, which are protective factors for mental health.


There are also various initiatives and programs aimed at improving the mental health and well-being of Indigenous Australians, such as the National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Well-being 2017–2023, the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, and the Transforming Indigenous Mental Health and Well-being project.


These are just some of the measures many Indigenous Australians utilise to cope with overcoming mental health problems  


It is important to note that these challenges stem from the deep-seated effects of historical injustices and disadvantages in modern society. While these measures aim to improve the mental health and well-being of the individual and those surrounding them, we as a larger society must address the root causes of these disparities through change to create a more equitable society.

“But what can I do about it?”


We here at The Mental Health Coach, and many of those who are affiliated and work with us in our work unanimously agree that the foundations of our society that keep Indigenous communities at a disadvantage are long overdue for active change. So, here are some of our suggestions for doing your part to help bring about an actual difference:


  1. Support Indigenous-led initiatives: You can support Indigenous-led initiatives focusing on mental health, well-being, or another cause. These initiatives often better understand the cultural and social factors contributing to discrepancies experienced by Indigenous communities and can provide more effective support.


  1. Educate yourself: Educate yourself about the history of Indigenous Australians and the impact of colonisation, intergenerational trauma, and discrimination they undergo. This can help you understand the root causes of mental health disparities facing Indigenous communities and how to address them.


  1. Advocate for change: Policy changes that address the social inequalities of health and well-being, such as access to healthcare, education, work, and housing – Push for change by working with the broader community to question, rethink, and enact change these structural inequalities embedded in social policy, economic systems, and the distribution of power and resources.


  1. Donate: You can donate to organisations that support Indigenous mental health and well-being or that support any other vision or goal that improves the Indigenous community’s quality of life.


  1. Be mindful of your language: Be aware of the language you use when discussing Indigenous Australians, their mental health, or anything else that might cause upset. Avoid using stigmatising language and instead use language that is respectful and empowering.


  1. Be an ally: You can ally with Indigenous Australians by listening to their experiences, amplifying their voices, addressing and fostering compassion through education to misinformed individuals, and supporting their efforts to address mental health disparities.


By taking action, you can help create a better, fairer society. And that is something worth taking action for. 




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