“ This tool, which was developed in conjunction with Aboriginal communities and researchers, will help us address easily treated problems that often go undiagnosed. It will also help us to assess the scale of mental health problems in communities.
Up until now, we couldn’t reliably ascertain this in a culturally appropriate way, which has remained a huge concern.
We need better resources and funding for mental health across Australia, but particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and within under-resourced health services. We hope this tool will be a turning point.”
Lead researcher Professor Maree Hackett, of The George Institute for Global Health, said mental health problems experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been overlooked, dismissed and marginalised for too long.
A culturally-appropriate depression screening tool for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples not only works, it should be rolled out across the country, according to a new study.
Researchers at The George Institute for Global Health, in partnership with key Aboriginal and Torres Strait primary care providers conducted the validation study in 10 urban, rural and remote primary health services across Australia.
The screening tool is an adapted version of the existing 9-item patient health questionnaire (PHQ-9) used across Australia and globally accepted as an effective screening method for depression. The adapted tool (aPHQ-9) contains culturally-appropriate questions asking about mood, appetite, sleep patterns, energy and concentration levels. It is hoped the adapted questionnaire will lead to improved diagnosis and treatment of depression in Aboriginal communities.
Download the 7 page study mja250212
The aPHQ-9 is freely available in a culturally-appropriate English version, and can be readily used by translators when working with First Nation communities where English is not the patients first language.
It is estimated up to 20 per cent of Australia’s general population with chronic disease will have a diagnosis of comorbid major depression. 
Approximately similar proportions will meet criteria for moderate or minor depression. Mental illness and depression are also considered to be key contributors in the development of chronic disease.
Across the nation, chronic disease (cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) accounts for 80 per cent of the life expectancy gap experienced by Aboriginal people 
How the tool works
The adapted tool, which was evaluated with 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, contains culturally-appropriate questions.
For example, the original (PHQ-9) questionnaire asks:
- Over the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following problems: Little interest or pleasure in doing things?
- Feeling down, depressed or hopeless
The adapted (aPHQ-9) tool instead asks:
- Over the last two weeks have you been feeling slack, not wanted to do anything?
- Have you been feeling unhappy, depressed, really no good, that your spirit was sad?
Download: Adapted Patient Questionnaire with scoring (PDF 117 KB)
Download: Adapted Patient Questionnaire without scoring(PDF 114 KB)
Professor Alex Brown, of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, who was co-investigator on the study, said the importance of using culturally appropriate language with First Nations people cannot be underestimated.
“In Australia, as with many countries around the world, everything is framed around Western understandings, language and methods. Our research recognises the importance of an Aboriginal voice and giving that a privileged position in how we respond to matters of most importance to Aboriginal people themselves.
“What we found during this study was that many questions were being lost in translation. Instead of a person scoring highly for being at risk of depression, they were actually scoring themselves much lower and missing out on potential opportunities for treatment.
“It was essential that we got this right and that we took our time speaking with Aboriginal people and ascertaining how the wording needed to be changed so we can begin to tackle the burden of depression.”
Aboriginal psychologist Dr Graham Gee, of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, saidAboriginal communities have unacceptably high rates of suicide which need to be addressed. “Identifying and treating depression is an important part of responding to this major challenge. It’s clear this tool is much needed.”
The new tool will be available for use at primary health centres across Australia and will be available to download here from Monday July 1.
The George Institute for Global Health
The George Institute for Global Health conducts clinical, population and health system research aimed at changing health practice and policy worldwide.
Established in Australia and affiliated with UNSW Sydney, it also has offices in China, India and the UK, and is affiliated with the University of Oxford. Facebook at thegeorgeinstitute Twitter @georgeinstitute Web georgeinstitute.org.au
Doctors can now use the new tool
In 2014-15, more than half (53.4%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples aged 15 years and over reported their overall life satisfaction was eight out of ten or more. Almost one in six (17%) said they were completely satisfied with their life. These positive data are testament to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ ongoing endurance.
But over the years, events like colonisation, racism, relocation of people away from their lands, and the forced removal of children from family and community have disrupted the resilience, cultural beliefs and practices of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. In turn, these factors have impacted their social and emotional well-being.
This may explain why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are twice as likely to be hospitalised for mental health disorders and die from suicide than their non-Aboriginal counterparts.
Teenagers aged 15 to 19 are five times more likely than non-Indigenous teenagers to die by suicide.
The importance of being able to more accurately identify those at risk can’t be understated.
While screening all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who present to general practice for depression is not recommended, the new questionnaire is a free, easy to administer, culturally acceptable tool for screening Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at high risk of depression.
Without a culturally appropriate tool, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with depression and suicidal thoughts might fly under the radar. This questionnaire will pave the way for important discussions and the provision of treatment and services to those most in need.
If this article has raised issues for you or you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. Visit the Beyond Blue website to access specific resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.