Sustaining Connection: Towards a Cultural Strengths Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community, Spiritual, Social and Emotional Wellbeing
By Norm Sheehan, Graham Martin OAM, Karolina Krysinska, Kym Kilroy
The National Mental Health Plan 2003-2008 recognises that influences on mental health and social and emotional wellbeing occur in the events and settings of everyday life. The complex interplay of biological, psychological, social, environmental and economic factors at the individual, family, community, national levels must be acknowledged and addressed if we are to effectively promote and support population-based approaches to social emotional, cultural and spiritual wellbeing.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the concept of health and wellbeing is inextricably linked to a holistic understanding of life itself. This broader understanding of health is outlined in Ways Forward:
Aboriginal concept of health is holistic, encompassing mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health...This holistic concept does not merely refer to the 'whole body' but is in fact steeped in the harmonised interrelations which constitute cultural wellbeing.
The National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People's Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing 2004-2009 reaffirms and expands upon the concept of health as multi-dimensional and recognises the strengths, resilience and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This is supported by the Cultural Respect Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health 2004-2009 which states that recognition of cultural differences is essential if we are to deliver services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that do not compromise their legitimate cultural rights, practices, values and expectations.
The determinants of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social, emotional, cultural and spiritual wellbeing are complex and reflect factors acting across the developmental continuum at individual, family community and societal levels.
This postdoctoral research study drew on existing literature and unpublished materials across the range of fields relevant to interventions supporting mental health and wellbeing in Indigenous settings. The intent was the development of a framework for social, emotional, cultural and spiritual wellbeing among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to inform population health, policy, planning and practice.
1. Sustaining Connection provides a life course framework that defines social, emotional, cultural and spiritual wellbeing amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to inform population level policy, program development and practice across the range of relevant sectors and agencies.
2. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians exist in a uniquely vulnerable situation as a dispossessed and marginalised population living in a wealthy Western society.
3. Twenty eight percent (28%) of Indigenous Australians (146,400 people) live in Queensland (3.6% of the population of the state) (ABS&AIHW, 2008); 32% living in outer regional areas, 8% in remote and 14% in very remote areas (ABS, 2007b).
4. Best available data indicate that overall mortality rates among Indigenous males and females are almost three times higher than for non-Indigenous Australians, and there is a 17-year gap between life expectancy at birth for Indigenous and non-Indigenous males and females (59 v. 77 years and 65 v. 82 years; respectively) (ABS&AIHW, 2008).
5. This health gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the rest of the Australian population measured in terms of life expectancy at birth is more than twice the gap existent between Native and other Canadians and three times the health gap between Native Americans and the population average of the USA.
6. Average expenditure on health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is $4,718 per capita, approximately 17% higher than for other Australians ($4,019).However, this level of expenditure is not sufficient to match the needs related to higher levels of morbidity (ABS&AIHW, 2008), nor the cost of delivery particularly to rural and remote communities.
7. Health inequality can be shown to directly relate to social determinants of health. The causes relate to the history of colonialism and dominance, and current racism, social marginalisation, cultural exclusion, poverty, and resultant trauma. These lead to destructive cycles of hopelessness, despair, criminality, self-harm, addiction and violence, emerging from and then contributing to community disease.
8. Social and Emotional Wellbeing (SEWB) is a unique term emerging in health based policy and strategy literature over the last 20 years. It represents the holistic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander understanding of a physically healthy, culturally intact and spiritually connected person.
9. Threats to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social and Emotional Wellbeing can be seen to arise from social domination and exclusion, social disregard, denial and racism that linger in Australian attitudes, governance and institutions. Trauma arises from cultural dispossession, personal dislocation, humiliation, and dissolution embedded in the social, cultural, community and family life experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The threats and the associated trauma can be shown to exist across the life course.
10. The resulting physical, emotional, behavioural, and social problems may be seen primarily as 'ill health' and/or 'poor mental health' or as the 'burden of disease'. This perception leads to costly medical and service-based interventions and responses. However this view makes little sense given the strength of the evidence presented in this Framework document for historical, cultural and social determinants for health problems.
11. The cultural resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a major strength and ameliorating presence that has historically proven value to their general health. Building on this with targeted and fully evaluated programs to enhance all aspects Social and Emotional Wellbeing across the life course is a better option for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
12. From our review of relevant policies and strategies, we conclude that considerable affirmative action is required to enable Indigenous Australians to reach equity with all other Australians.
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Table of Contents
Executive summary 7
Social and emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Australians: A framework for action 9
Social and emotional wellbeing: The policy context 25
Social and Emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Australians: The legacy of history 41
Social determinants of health 59
Culture and wellbeing 63
Spirituality and social and emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal Australians 85
Evidence for culturally based wellbeing programs 99
Proposed model framework for social and emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders 115
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