Social and Emotional Wellbeing

The term social and emotional wellbeing is used by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to describe the social, emotional, spiritual, and cultural wellbeing of a person. The term recognises that connection to land, culture, spirituality, family, and community are important to people and can impact on their wellbeing. It also recognises that a person’s social and emotional wellbeing is influenced by policies and past events.

Another term that is often used when discussing wellbeing is mental health. Mental health is a term that has been used a lot, mainly by non-Indigenous people, to describe how people think and feel, and how they cope with and take part in everyday life. People are often thought of as being mentally healthy when they don’t have a mental illness (when people become unwell in the mind and it affects their thinking, feelings, and behaviour).

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people believe that mental health and mental illness focus too much on problems and don’t properly describe all the factors that make up and influence wellbeing. Because of this, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people prefer the term social and emotional wellbeing as it fits well with a holistic view of health. The best way to understand these different terms is to think of mental health and mental illness as part of a person’s social and emotional wellbeing.

What are the factors impacting on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

There are many different factors that can impact on a person’s social and emotional wellbeing. These can range from normal everyday stresses to major life events.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a number of events in the past have had a serious ongoing impact on their social and emotional wellbeing. These include dispossession from their lands (loss of lands), and the impact of the policies and actions that followed, such as the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and homelands.

Professor Helen Milroy, an Indigenous psychiatrist, describes three important themes to come from an analysis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history. They include: ‘the denial of humanity, the denial of existence and the denial of identity’ (see Zubrick et al., 2005).

Also of importance to the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the general disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and adults in the areas of education, employment, income, and their overall position in Australian society. These areas, which are some of the important ‘social determinants of health’, are linked with many other external stresses. These stresses include serious illnesses and disability, higher levels of death in the family/community, overcrowded houses, substance use problems, violence, discrimination and racism, trouble with police, and being sent to jail and/or having a family member who has been sent to jail.

What are the mental health problems impacting on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

The most serious mental health problems impacting on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are mental illnesses (also called mental disorders). There are many different mental illnesses that can affect a person’s social and emotional wellbeing. These mental illnesses have been grouped together depending on their type. The main types of mental illnesses include:

  • anxiety disorders – these are disorders where people worry a lot or often feel edgy and nervous. Examples include panic disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder
  • mood disorders – these are disorders that affect a person’s mood. People will often feel ‘down’ or ‘low’ in mood and some people also experience very ‘high’ moods. Depressive disorders and bipolar disorders are types of mood disorders
  • psychotic disorders – these disorders occur when a person loses touch with reality and experiences unusual changes in their thinking, emotions, and behaviour. The person may have confused thoughts, hear voices, or see things that others can’t. Schizophrenia is a type of psychotic disorder
  • substance use disorders – these disorders occur when a person’s use of alcohol and/or other substances causes them problems but they continue to take the substance anyway.

Only a trained and qualified health professional can confirm whether someone has a mental illness. This decision is based on the person meeting a strict set of criteria (the person must show a certain number of signs/symptoms for a certain period of time). It is common for people to show some signs of a mental illness but not enough for them to have a mental illness. It is important that these people are also offered help and support because the signs/symptoms could get worse and really affect their social and emotional wellbeing.

In addition to mental illnesses/disorders, there are other problems that can impact on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These include:

  • grief and loss
  • trauma
  • self-harm
  • suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

While these problems are not mental illnesses, they can be a sign or symptom of a mental illness and have a serious impact on a person’s social and emotional wellbeing.

How do you measure social and emotional wellbeing?

As with health generally, it is very difficult to provide an overall ‘measure’ of social and emotional wellbeing. Because of this, measurement tends to focus on the reasons why people are not mentally healthy, and the factors contributing to the reasons why their mental health is not so good.

Mental health problems – and the factors contributing to mental health problems – relate to individuals, but they are often measured by looking at their occurrence in a population. These measures attempt to give an overall picture of:

  • how common various mental health problems and stressors are
  • how mental health problems are managed in terms of primary health care and hospitalisation
  • the impact of mental health problems, including death.

How common are mental health problems among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

The exact extent of mental health problems among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is not known, but there is evidence that:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 18 years or older are twice as likely as non-Indigenous people to feel high or very high levels of psychological distress
  • in 2004-2005, almost four out of five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported having experienced significant stress in the previous 12 months, compared with around three out of five people in the total population
  • significant stresses, particularly ‘death of a family member or friend’, ‘alcohol or drug related problem’, ‘trouble with police’, and ‘witness to violence’, are much more common among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than among the total population
  • the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey found that around one in four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people aged 4-17 years were viewed by their parents as being at high risk of significant emotional or behavioural difficulties (serious emotional or behavioural problems that affect a person’s day-to-day life) – this compares with less than one in six children and young people of the same age group in the general Australian population
  • the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey also found that children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers who had been forcibly separated from their families were more than twice as likely to be at high risk of significant emotional or behavioural difficulties, and had twice the rates of alcohol and other drug use than children whose carers had not been forcibly separated from their families
  • the rate of admissions to hospital for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ – the overall term used to classify different types of mental illnesses/disorders – is almost twice the rate for non-Indigenous people
  • for the different ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ sub-categories, the hospital admission rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were:
    • 3-4 times higher for ‘mental and behavioural disorders due to psychoactive substance use’
    • around two times higher for ‘schizophrenia, schizotypal and delusional disorders’ and ‘organic mental disorders’
    • similar for ‘disorders of adult personality and behaviour’ and ‘mood and neurotic disorders’ when compared with the rates for the non-Indigenous population
  • hospital admissions for intentional self-harm are 2-3 times more common for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than for non-Indigenous people
  • rates of death from intentional self-harm are much higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males than for non-Indigenous males; rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females are also higher than those for non-Indigenous females
  • the rates of death from ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ are 2-6 times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than for non-Indigenous people across Australia (the ratios differ between states and territories).

For a thorough review of the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, click here

For more information about mental health problems among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, click here

Please note the term ‘mental illness’ has been used in place of ‘mental disorder’ and ‘psychological disorder’ because it is a more common term.

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Untitled by Donna Lei Rioli

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