NACCHO Aboriginal Health : Pat Dudgeon “Closing the Mental Health Gap ” Special Issue : Indigenous Psychology

” The available data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage has shone a light on the Indigenous mental health and wellbeing gap.

In their commentary in this special issue, Calma, Dudgeon, and Bray (2017) provide details of the challenges in mental health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and what needs to happen to change the situation.All articles in this issue are concerned with and aimed at contributing to closing the mental health gap.”

Pat Dudgeon Pictured above with NACCHO CEO Pat Turner at the recent launch of the ATSISPEP report

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    The Australian Psychological Society’s Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (pages 261–267)Timothy A Carey, Pat Dudgeon, Sabine W Hammond, Tanja Hirvonen, Michael Kyrios, Louise Roufeil and Peter Smith

We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land across Australia and pay our respect to the Elders past, present and future.

We also acknowledge young people as they are our future leaders, the custodians of our stories, cultures, histories and languages.

We as seniors must create opportunities and encourage our youth to realise their full potential (Calma, 2015).This special issue on Indigenous psychology is timely in a changing landscape for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (hereon Indigenous) people and their participation in an Australian nationhood. A range of significant landmark events suggests that both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Australians are in a process of decolonisation.

In our first special issue of Australian Psychologist: Indigenous Australian Psychologies (2000), we marked the changes that were taking place and our hopes for a better future. Here our focus was on psychology, Indigenous issues, and reconciliation. Looking back to that time 17 years ago, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs have clearly advanced.As a result of the work of Indigenous communities, their leaders, and social justice advocates, there is now a greater public awareness of the social and cultural determinants of Indigenous health and a range of government policies and actions aimed at closing the health and life expectancy gap between the Indigenous peoples of the land and other Australians.In his role as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Professor Tom Calma released a landmark document, the Social Justice Report (2005).This called for the nation to commit to achieving health equality for Indigenous people by 2030, and saw the establishment of the Close the Gap campaign in 2007.Dialogues about the underlying and deeply entrenched socio-economic disadvantage that contributes to this gap are now part of the national dialogue. Government policies and action to close the gap have also now become a national priority that is annually reviewed.This year, the Prime Minster presented the ninth annual report card to Parliament (Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report, 2017).Notably, Indigenous mental health and suicide prevention is highlighted as a priority in this report, which is acknowledged by all Australian governments.
Closing the Mental Health Gap

The available data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage has shone a light on the Indigenous mental health and wellbeing gap.

In their commentary in this special issue, Calma, Dudgeon, and Bray (2017) provide details of the challenges in mental health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and what needs to happen to change the situation.
All articles in this issue are concerned with and aimed at contributing to closing the mental health gap.
For example, in Addressing the Mental Health Gap in Working with Indigenous Youth: Some Considerations for non-Indigenous Psychologists Working with Indigenous Youth (Ralph & Ryan, 2017), an overview of therapeutic approaches with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly youth, is provided.
Ralph and Ryan (2017) stress that an understanding of Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) is necessary for all those who work with youth: “for practitioners working with Indigenous youth and others there is a need to work from within a social and emotional wellbeing framework and a need to adapt the application of any focused psychological strategies to the cultural context of the individual client.” They also express justifiable concerns that “the average number of sessions provided under ATAPS for youth aged 12–25 is only 4.8 sessions.”

The SEWB of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth is also the focus of Using Culturally Appropriate Approaches to the Development of KidsMatter Resources to Support the Social and Emotional Wellbeing of Aboriginal Children (Smith, O’Grady, Cubillo, & Cavanagh, 2017).

In this article, Smith, O’Grady, Cubillo, and Cavanagh (2017) describe the methodology behind the development of resources in the KidsMatter Aboriginal Children’s Social and Emotional Wellbeing Project. An inclusive process of workshops and consultations with Aboriginal people was informed by participatory action, narrative therapy, and critically reflexive practice. This process enabled researchers and the community to build effective learning tools for children for use by Aboriginal families, schools, and early childhood and health and community services.

Another article in this special issue, Narratives of Twitter as a Platform for Professional Development, Innovation and Advocacy (Geia, Pearson, & Sweet, 2017) offers a compelling argument for the online engagement of psychologists—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—in raising community awareness of strategies for decolonisation, for circulating empowering, strength-based approaches to Indigenous wellbeing, and supporting and recruiting potential practitioners.

This paper describes the significant success of some transformative Indigenous Twitter movements. Lynore Geia, a Bwgcolman woman from Palm Island in Queensland, discusses #IHMayDay the day long Twitter festival raising awareness of health issues; Luke Pearson, a Gamilaroi man, describes how he set up @IndigenousX and the subsequent global and local impact on healing and knowledge building, and Melissa Sweet discusses the important #JustJustice campaign.

The connections between the criminal justice system and SEWB are also focused on in a significant paper on the urgent need for justice reinvestment, Keeping on Country: Understanding and Responding to Crime and recidivism in Remote Indigenous Communities (Dawes, Davidson, Walden, & Isaacs, 2017). Outcomes from a qualitative study using a multidisciplinary research team that engaged the community through a specific participatory action research process are discussed.

Their findings resonate with the principles of justice reinvestment; Dawes, Davidson, Walden and Isaacs (2017) suggest that with the right methodological approach Indigenous communities themselves can easily identify the underlying factors contributing to crime. With the community, localised strategies to address over-representation in the justice system can be developed. Further, adopting a self-determination approach provides a strength-based position for psychologists working in the area.

Cross-cultural understanding and developing and maintaining local culture in remote communities is the focus of another unique article, The Uti Kulintjaku Project: The Path to Clear Thinking. An Evaluation of an Innovative, Aboriginal-led Approach to Developing Bi-cultural Understanding of Mental Health and Wellbeing (2017).

The results of 3 years of research was an innovative approach to strengthen shared understandings in mental health. The research work undertaken is at the heart of cross-cultural relationships, that is, exploring and articulating deep understandings of language and concepts. Both the community leaders and the non-Indigenous workers in the research team have benefited from this appropriately long-term project.


It increased the empowerment and capacity building of the leaders involved, and increased the cultural understanding of non-Indigenous service providers. Togni (2017) demonstrates that the building of stronger bi-cultural wellbeing literacies will “lead to increased help-seeking, strengthened cultural competency within health services and Anangu leadership in strengthening Anangu social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB).”

The importance of recognising the contributions of Indigenous concepts of SEWB is also the focus of Decolonising Psychology: Validating Social and Emotional Wellbeing (Dudgeon, Bray & D’Costa, Walker, 2017) which uses findings from the National Empowerment Project to explore the seven domains of SEWB, namely body, mind and emotions, family, community, culture, Country, and spirituality.


In this article, Dudgeon, Bray, D’Costa, and Walker (2017) highlight how SEWB, (an emerging concept within Indigenous psychology), is important in holistically addressing the well being needs of Indigenous people.

The breadth of topics and approaches of the articles in this special issue are a testament to the strong emergence of Australian Indigenous psychology and are just some of the numerous innovations being made in the field across the nation. New methodologies, important findings, strategies for research futures, and guides for practitioners are offered. Each paper makes a significant contribution to both the discipline, the project of Indigenous social justice, and closing the mental health gap.

Indigenous PsychologyIndigenous psychology is emerging as a powerful new discipline and was recognised at a global level with the establishment of the Task Force for Indigenous Psychology in the Society for Humanistic Psychology, Division 32, American Psychological Association in 2010. The Task Force describes Indigenous psychology as:

  1. A reaction against the colonisation/hegemony of Western psychology.
  2. The need for non-Western cultures to solve their local problems—Indigenous practices and applications.
  3. The need for a non-Western culture to recognise itself in the constructs and practices of psychology.
  4. The need to use Indigenous philosophies and concepts to generate theories of global discourse.

We address each of these factors below; however, it is noted that implicit within these is a recognition that the principle of self-determination, confirmed as an underlying principle in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) (2007), is central to wellbeing and the survival of cultural rights. Specifically, there are provisions regarding obligations to respect, recognise, and uphold Indigenous peoples’ individual and collective rights to develop, maintain, and use their own health systems, institutional structures, distinctive customs, spirituality, traditions, procedures, and practices in pursuit of their right to health and mental health and wellbeing. Authors such as Dudgeon and Walker (2015) have examined this relationship in other papers.

  • 1.A reaction against the colonisation/hegemony of Western psychology

The measured and principled response of Australia Indigenous psychology to the colonising impacts of Western psychology has challenged the discipline to re-think foundational assumptions. Since the 1990s Indigenous psychologies across the world have illuminated the ways in which Western therapeutic paradigms have privileged a concept of individual mental health. In short, the normalisation of Western individualism has reduced our understanding of psychological distress and healing. Indigenous therapeutic knowledge about the self as a dynamic flow of connections have until quite recently been silenced, and even pathologised. Yet gains in the discipline over the last few decades have seen a shift from Indigenous people being framed as objects of research to being agents of meaning and transformation. The marginalisation of Indigenous psychological research within the academy is still, however, an issue which requires change.

  • 2.The need for non-Western cultures to solve their local problems—Indigenous practices and applications

There is a broad consensus across Australian Indigenous communities that culturally strong therapeutic knowledge and practices are ones which articulate solutions identified by local communities (Dudgeon et al., 2014). Respect for the cultural knowledge of Elders is also important in the capacity building of on-country healing programs aimed at reducing youth suicide and “highlight the need for continued support for Elders in maintaining and passing on their cultural knowledge to young people” (Solutions That Work: What the Evidence and Our People Tell Us, 2016, p. 22).

  • 3.The need for a non-Western culture to recognise itself in the constructs and practices of psychology

This form of recognition is foundational to the process of decolonisation and for communities to identity their own solutions and articulate their own cultural concepts. However, it is equally important for Western psychology to recognise how the discipline has constructed Indigenous subjectivity and practiced culturally inappropriate therapeutic interventions. In this respect, the Australian Psychological Society has made history by being the first to formally apologise to Indigenous peoples for past oppressive practices and to vow to make systemic changes. The 2016 people was made at the Australian Psychological Society Congress 2016 in Melbourne. This has become a significant event that gained considerable worldwide media attention and has impact not only in Australia but internationally, with the American Psychological Association now developing a similar apology to their Indigenous people. It is fitting that those involved with progressing the APS apology comment in this special edition. Carey et al. provide a brief overview of the APS’s involvement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and issues, tracing the history that contextualises the apology. The apology, how it came about and the reaction to it, particularly by APS members, describes a changing discipline. Following the Australian Government’s landmark apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people Stolen Generations in 2008, the APS apology speaks to a maturing sense of race relations and nationhood. In my opinion, the apology formally owns and acknowledges the wrongs done, and the denial of the past, the injustice and oppression that was the lot of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In some respects, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have suffered a double burden—of suffering injustice and also of having that suffering denied. The apology from the nation and the APS is important; they value people and their experiences and give people respect and a genuine presence. A shared journey of healing for us as a nation can progress.

  • 4.The need to use Indigenous philosophies and concepts to generate theories of global discourse

There is a growing recognition of how psychology has been complicit in the processes of colonisation and oppressing Indigenous peoples. Recognising and acknowledging this past is important, hence the importance of the APS apology. Such acknowledgement and apology allows us to move forward, acknowledging colonisation allows decolonisation for both groups and into a more advanced discipline. It allows space for other viewpoints and understandings to emerge that not only benefit Indigenous peoples but all Australians. There is reason for optimism and the potential for empowerment and genuine inclusion of Aboriginal peoples in the discipline. In order to decolonise psychology in Australia, the discipline needs to consider and incorporate Aboriginal culture and beliefs into mental health services and research. We see this happening from the papers in this special edition. There is focus on the development of Aboriginal paradigms, standpoints, and concepts such as social and emotional wellbeing. Further, there is a deep appreciation of cultural difference and a willingness to work to develop mutual understandings. The papers in the special edition show the promise of different approaches and the development of a new phase of Australian psychology.

In 2017 we stand at a new beginning. We are living in a time of continual change. Twenty years ago Ernest Hunter wrote:

Self determination’, ‘quality of life’, ‘wellbeing’: these are terms that have only recently entered the vocabulary of mental health professionals working in indigenous settings. They are unfamiliar and handled with uncertainty and, at times, temerity; they are also unavoidable (1997, p. 821).

This special issue attests to how such terms are now a common part of discussions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing, and part of a vanguard movement in psychology.

Such terms have a substantial material force and a political history, as well as being part of the discourse of Indigenous psychology. Globally, the focus on decolonisation has emerged as a new defining movement which is in the process of transforming all disciplines, not only psychology. Decades of complex Indigenous struggles, debates, and victories are driving decolonisation, and it is because of this that terms such as “self-determination” and “wellbeing” resonate with a particular historical dignity.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health movement is decolonising the discourse of Australian mental health not only within specialised journals but within the public sphere through the opening up of national debates about the relationship between racism and wellbeing. In doing so, the movement has also contributed to the national projects of overcoming racism and de-stigmatising psychological distress by providing insights into the social and cultural determinants of mental health.

TerminologyA range of words are used to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Aboriginal peoples. The term Indigenous is also used by authors, as this includes both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. While encouraging authors to use terms that best fit the people they write with, I acknowledge that the preferred term is “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” The Australian Human Rights Commission explains this term in further detail:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples retain distinct cultural identities whether they live in urban, regional or remote areas of Australia. The word ‘peoples’ recognises that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have a collective, rather than purely individual, dimension to their lives. This is affirmed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2012, p. 6).

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