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Education & employment

About this topic

Mental health is affected by a complex combination of health risk factors, access to and use of health services, environmental factors, and an individual’s own health capabilities. Systemic differences in these factors are associated with socioeconomic position—both for individuals and groups—including differences in education, employment and income (AIHW 2020). Access to appropriate education and employment is fundamental to strengthening the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities (Dudgeon et al. 2017) and to good mental health (Shepherd et al. 2012).

Connection to mind, emotions and community

Connection to mind and emotions, and connection to community, are 2 of the 7 domains of social and emotional wellbeing for Indigenous Australians.

Social and emotional wellbeing is a holistic way of looking at relationships between individuals, family, kin and community in the context of land, culture, spirituality and ancestry. Cultural groups and individuals each have their own interpretation of social and emotional wellbeing (Gee et al. 2014).

Education and employment opportunities can enhance a person’s connection to mind and emotions, as well as their connection to community (PM&C 2017).


Education can provide a foundation that enables knowledge of health behaviours and determinants, stable employment, financial security, and social connections (ABS 2011; Biddle & Cameron 2012; Hart et al. 2017). Indigenous Australians who complete Year 12 or higher are more likely to be employed (Shirodkar et al. 2018; Venn 2018), which is consistent with the general Australian population (ABS 2019).

Mainstream formal education can be challenging for Indigenous families. Indigenous families can feel alienated by culturally inappropriate practices. For example, the mainstream education system may not recognise child autonomy in the same way as Aboriginal caregivers, nor recognise the cultural competence that Indigenous children bring to school (Walker et al. 2014). Experiences of discrimination, racism and harassment at school can lead to marginalisation and social exclusion (Dudgeon et al. 2014). Absenteeism may be used as a protective mechanism against feelings of shame or anxiety. Infrequent school attendance can impact on learning, as well as the delivery of prevention programs aiming to support children through behavioural and emotional problems (Walker et al. 2014).

Creating opportunities for participation, social connection and a sense of belonging can encourage school attendance and address behavioural and emotional problems (Walker et al. 2014). Under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap Agreement, the Council of Australian Governments committed to 16 targets, 4 of which are related to education (PM&C 2020a).  

Closing the Gap targets for education:

  • Ensure that 95% of all Indigenous children are enrolled in early childhood education by 2025. In 2018, the proportion was 85%. The Closing the Gap Report 2020 states that this target is on track.
  • Ensure that 96% of Indigenous Australians age 20–24 attain year 12 or equivalent qualification by 2031. From 2008 to 2018–19, the proportion increased from 45% to 66%.
  • Ensure that 70% of Indigenous Australians aged 25–34 years have completed a tertiary (Certificate III and above) qualification by 2031. In 2016, the proportion was 42%.
  • Ensure that 67% of Indigenous young people (15–24 years) are in employment, education or training by 2031. In 2016, the proportion was 57%.

Sources: COAG 2020; PM&C 2020b

Education outcomes for Indigenous Australians are affected by access and participation in education, family and community engagement, home learning environments, the availability of mentors and culturally inclusive support strategies (Productivity Commission 2016).


Jobs provide opportunities for financial security, self-determination, stable housing and improved social and emotional wellbeing (PM&C 2019). Employment satisfaction and stress can have substantial impact on a person’s wellbeing (Wilkins & Lass 2018). Stressors such as job insecurity and job loss have been linked to psychological distress (ABS 2011). These factors may also be linked to other stressors such as serious illness, disability, inadequate housing, inaccessibility of reliable utilities, overcrowding, exposure to violence including family and domestic violence, substance misuse, incarceration, and interpersonal and institutional racism (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

Institutional racism and historical exclusion of Indigenous Australians can reduce participation in education, training and the national economy. These factors are associated with a range of adverse health conditions, such as stress, mental health problems and attempted suicide (Nguyen & Cairney 2013).

One of the original Closing the Gap targets, set by the Council of Australian Governments, was to halve the gap in employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians between 2008 and 2018. This target was not met. The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap’s target for employment is to increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 25–64 who are employed to 62% by 2031. According to the Closing the Gap Information Repository, the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 25–64 who were employed increased from 43% in 1991 to 51% in 2016.

Employment for Indigenous Australians may be increased by:

  • increasing skill levels
  • pre-employment assessment and training
  • intensive assistance for jobseekers
  • non-standard recruitment strategies
  • support for retention
  • wage subsidies
  • Indigenous employment goals in government programs
  • policies that support Indigenous skills required for available jobs (Gray & Hunter 2016; Gray et al. 2012).

Although increasing employment can address economic disadvantage, conventional measures of employment ignore the positive wellbeing aspects of cultural engagement. Reporting frameworks should recognise that different cultures may have different constructs of employment and work (Carson et al. 2007; Dockery 2010).

Key statistics


The information presented above is from survey data. Estimates are calculated using a sample selected from a population rather than all members of that population. See the downloadable excel workbook for notes related to this data and for alternative text.

In 2014–15, self-reported survey responses of Indigenous Australians aged 15 years and over with a mental health condition showed that:

  • 40% were employed full time, compared with 50% of those with no long-term health condition
  • 12.6% were unemployed, compared to 15.7% of those with no long-term health condition
  • 47% had a Year 12 or higher qualification, compared with 41% of those with no long-term health condition
  • 21% were currently studying, compared to 26% of those with no long-term health condition (ABS 2016).

In 2018–19, 42% (20,610) of unemployed Indigenous Australians aged 15–64, reported high or very high levels of psychological distress, compared with 22% (48,960) of those who were employed (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

The Australians Early Development Census (AEDC 2019a) measures 5 important domains of early childhood development:

  • physical health and wellbeing
  • social competence
  • emotional maturity
  • language and cognitive skills (school-based).

In 2018, Indigenous children were more likely than non-Indigenous children (41% compared with 20%, respectively) to report developmental vulnerability for 1 or more of these domains (AEDC 2019b).

Employed refers to persons aged 15 years and over who had a job or business, or who worked without pay in a family business for a minimum of 1 hour in the week prior to interview. This also includes persons who were absent from a job or business (ABS 2016).

Unemployed refers to persons aged 15 years and over who were not employed but were actively looking for work in the 4 weeks before they were interviewed, and were available to start work in the previous week.

Labour force: The labour force comprises all people who are either employed or unemployed.

This information was compiled from the following data sources: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS) 2018–19, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) 2014–15, and Australian Early Development Census (AECD). More information about these data sources and their data quality is available in Data sources.

For more information about employment and education for Indigenous Australians, see the ABS report National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014–15 and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework.

Care has been taken to ensure that the results of survey data presented above are as accurate as possible. However, the following factors should be considered when interpreting these estimates.

  • Data collected from self-report surveys may differ from information available from other sources.
  • Accuracy of responses may be affected by the length of time between events experienced and participation in the survey.
  • Some people may have provided responses they felt were expected, rather than those that accurately reflect their own situation (ABS 2019).

See ABS NATSIHS 2018–19 Methodology and NATSISS 2014–15 Explanatory notes for more information.

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2011. The health and welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, October 2010: links between education and health. ABS cat. no. 4704.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2016. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social survey, 2014–15. ABS cat. no. 4714.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019. Labour Force, Australia. Detailed, Quarterly, Feb 2019. ABS cat. no. 6291.0.55.003 Canberra: ABS.

AEDC (Australian Early Development Census) 2019a. About the AECD Domains. Canberra: Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

AEDC 2019b. Australia Early Development Census national report 2018. Canberra: Department of Education.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2020. Social determinants and Indigenous health. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW & NIAA (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & National Indigenous Australians' Agency) 2020 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 25 May 2021.

Biddle N & Cameron T 2012. Potential factors influencing Indigenous education participation and achievement. Research report for the National Vocational Education and Training Research Program. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research.

COAG (Council of Australian Governments) 2020. National Agreement on Closing the Gap. Canberra: COAG. Viewed 6 August 2021.

Carson B, Dunbar T, Chenhall RD & Bailie R 2007. Social determinants of Indigenous health. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Dockery AM 2010. Culture and wellbeing: The case of Indigenous Australians. Social Indicators Research 99:315–32.

Dudgeon P, Wright M, Paradies Y, Garvey D & Walker I 2014. Aboriginal social, cultural and historical contexts. In Dudgeon P, Milroy H & Walker R (eds). Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice. Part 1:3–24.

Dudgeon P, Bray A, D’Costa B & Walker R 2017. Decolonising psychology: validating social and emotional wellbeing. Australian Psychologist 52: 316–325

Gee G, Dudgeon P, Schultz C, Hart A & Kelly K 2014. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional wellbeing. In: Dudgeon P, Milroy H & Walker R (eds). Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice. 2nd edn. Canberra: Australian Government, pp. 55-68.

Gray M & Hunter B 2016. Indigenous Employment after the Boom. Canberra: CAEPR.

Gray M, Hunter B & Lohoar S 2012. Increasing Indigenous employment rates. Canberra: Closing the Gap Clearinghouse.

Hart M, Moore M & Laverty M 2017. Improving Indigenous health through education. The Medical Journal of Australia 207(1):11–12.

Nguyen OK & Cairney S 2013. Literature review of the interplay between education, employment, health and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote areas: working towards an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing framework. Adelaide: Ninti One Limited.

PM&C (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2017. National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing. Canberra: PM&C.

PM&C 2019. Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2019. Canberra: PM&C. Viewed 6 August 2021.

PM&C 2020a. National Agreement on Closing the Gap. Canberra: PM&C. Viewed 6 August 2021.

PM&Ca 2020b. Closing the Gap Report 2020. Canberra: PM&C. Viewed 6 August 2021.

Productivity Commission 2016. National Education Evidence Base. Report No. 80. Canberra: Productivity Commission.

Shepherd CC, Li J, Mitrou F & Zubrick SR 2012. Socioeconomic disparities in the mental health of Indigenous children in Western Australia. BMC Public Health 12: 756. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-75.

Shirodkar S, Hunter B & Foley D 2018. Ongoing growth in the number of Indigenous Australians in business. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. Canberra: Australian National University.

Venn D 2018. Indigenous youth employment and the school-to-work transition. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. Canberra: Australian National University.

Walker R, Robinson M, Adermann J & Campbell MA 2014. Working with behavioural and emotional problems in young people. In Dudgeon P, Milroy H & Walker R (eds). Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice Part 5:383–398.

Wilkins R & Lass I 2018. The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey: selected findings from waves 1 to 16. Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic and Social Research.

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Data tables: Education & employment
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