Social, Emotional and Cultural Wellbeing

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people view health as holistic; encompassing mental, physical, cultural and spiritual health [33834].

The Aboriginal sense of self was traditionally seen as intimately connected to all aspects of life; community, spirituality, culture and country. The cultural, protective factors that contributed to a stable and optimal sense of mental health and social and emotional well-being included:

  • relationships and kinship – important for defining social roles
  • spiritual beliefs – offered guidance and comfort in times of distress, death and loss
  • customary law – defined rules and consequences
  • tribal Elders – were highly respected and interpreted the Lore
  • men and women  – had defined economic and cultural roles [28917][28925].

In 1979 the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (now the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation) adopted the following definition of health:

Aboriginal health does not mean the physical wellbeing of an individual, but refers to the social, emotional, and cultural wellbeing of the whole community. For Aboriginal people this is seen in terms of the whole-life-view. Health care services should strive to achieve the state where every individual is able to achieve their full potential as human beings, and must bring about the total wellbeing of their communities  [28917].

The legacy of colonisation that caused displacement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from their traditional lands and ways of being as well as ongoing systematic devaluing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture has had a devastating impact on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people [28916]. Alcohol and drug use is one way individuals cope with common life stressors that have been caused by colonisation such as:

  • poverty
  • racism
  • death of a family member or close friend
  • overcrowding
  • serious illness or disability
  • incarceration of self or a family member
  • trauma
  • being a member or family member of the Stolen Generations [33834][28925].

Some people also may use alcohol and other drugs to cope with a mental illness [23503].

People experiencing mental illness:

  • are more at risk of developing alcohol or drug dependence
  • can be more sensitive to the side effects of alcohol or drugs
  • can find it harder to stop using alcohol or other drugs.

Some substances can also have serious negative impacts on a person’s mental health [23503][18216]. The use of cannabis, amphetamines and alcohol have been linked to mental health conditions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people like anxiety, psychosis and depression [33486].

Strategies and programs to address harmful alcohol and other drug  use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are important for restoring the health and social and emotional wellbeing not only of individuals, but of their families and communities [27794].


Key resources



Feeding the Family Pets by Brian Robinson

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