Skip to content
Skip to navigation

Family & community

About this topic

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Indigenous Australians), mental health and wellbeing are enhanced by connection to Country, family and spirit, strong social networks and strong leadership in the community (Gee et al. 2014).

Family support can strengthen wellbeing by providing connections to community and culture and the provision of emotional support, particularly in times of stress (AIFS 2020; Gee et al. 2014; Milroy et al. 2014). Community participation and contact with friends and family outside the household can enhance a person’s sense of belonging, social resilience and can offer meaning to everyday life (ABS 2016; DoH 2019).

Connection to community, family and kinship

Connection to community and to family and kinship 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).

Having support networks enhances connection to community. Having a loving, stable, accepting and supportive family improves connection to family and kinship (PM&C 2017).

Strong connections to family and kinship systems are central to the functioning of Indigenous communities. Connection to community provides opportunities for support and collaboration (PM&C 2017). Factors that threaten these strong connections include violence, isolation, and disengagement from community (PM&C 2017).

Community safety

A safe community is one where people feel protected from harm in their home, workplace and society (AIHW 2019a). The wellbeing and mental health of many Indigenous Australians are affected by the safety of their community.

When a person feels safe:

  • they can live a better quality life that is healthy
  • they are more likely to engage in the community
  • their community as a whole faces a lower incidence of injuries and violence (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

Safe communities are able to provide emotional, physical or financial support during times of crisis (DoH 2019).

Indigenous Australians have experienced violence through colonisation, discrimination and cultural dispossession (Day et al. 2013; Our Watch 2018). This has resulted in ongoing social, economic, physical, psychological and emotional effects (AIHW 2018a; Coles et al. 2015; Loxton et al. 2019; Our Watch 2018).

The effects of colonisation are perpetuated through:

  • racialised, structural inequalities of power
  • entrenched racism in social norms, attitudes and practices
  • racist violence
  • condoning of, and insufficient accountability for, violence against Indigenous Australians.

‘Lateral violence’ describes the way people (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) in positions of powerlessness covertly or overtly direct their dissatisfaction inward towards themselves, each other and those less powerful than themselves (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

For Indigenous Australians, the roots of lateral violence are found in colonisation, oppression, intergenerational trauma and experiences of racism (Korff 2015).

A range of Indigenous community initiatives have been implemented to manage community safety. These include family violence prevention programs and community patrols.

Community patrols are night patrols, foot patrols, street patrols, youth or women’s patrols (AIHW & NIAA 2020; Blagg 2007; Willis 2010). They aim to minimise risk of harm, de-escalate tensions, divert people away from the criminal justice system, and connect people with support services such as sobering-up shelters or women’s refuges (AIHW & NIAA 2020). Successful community patrols are part of a holistic approach that features:

  • community involvement and ownership
  • relationships with a network of community services
  • strong collaboration with (but independence from) police
  • long-term government support
  • endorsement by key community members
  • social cohesion (Beacroft et al. 2011; Blagg 2007).

The child protection and criminal justice systems are also used as ways of managing community safety, but interactions with these systems can be traumatic for Indigenous communities. Violence or child abuse can be under-reported by victims due to lack of trust in police (Bailey et al. 2017; Olsen & Lovett 2016; Prentice et al. 2017; Willis 2010).

Improving the level of safety in all communities depends on addressing entrenched inequality and disadvantage and the multiple factors that give rise to violent and criminal behaviour. 

Child protection system

Child protection agencies aim to address the safety needs of children. These agencies and services intervene within family settings to support children who are at risk of harm (Titterton 2017). Removing children from their families, culture and communities is a last resort (Productivity Commission 2019).

The reasons for the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australian children in child protection and out-of-home care systems are complex and include the intergenerational effects of previous separations from family and culture and the legacy of past policies of forced removal (AIHW 2019b).

Exposure to abuse, neglect and other traumatic experiences are common drivers of entry into the child protection system (AIHW 2020) and these experiences can continue while they are in the system (PM&C 2017). For some children, increased contact with the child protection system can exacerbate trauma and existing mental health conditions (Green et al. 2019). Indigenous children placed in out-of-home care can experience a disconnection from community, family and culture (Chandler & Lalonde 2018).

Mainstream services are mistrusted because of the legacy of colonisation and a history of mistreatment and separation of Indigenous families (Dudgeon et al. 2014). Government policies such as the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and the Child Placement Principle provide guidance for maintaining culture through the child protection system (AIHW 2020; COAG 2009; Tilbury et al. 2013).

Members of the Stolen Generations and their descendants experience higher levels of incarceration, unemployment and poor health compared to Indigenous Australians in the same age cohort who were not removed (AIHW 2018b).

Criminal justice system

The criminal justice system determines which events are criminal and exercises penalties and compensation (ABS 1997). Indigenous Australians experience contact with the criminal justice system—as both offenders and victims—at much higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians (Productivity Commission 2016; Senate Community Affairs References Committee 2010).

Imprisonment compounds existing social and economic disadvantage and affects family, children and the broader community with intergenerational effects (AIHW & NIAA 2020). Child removals, poverty, higher rates of stressful life events, psychological distress, and mental health issues are linked to the higher rates of contact with the criminal justice system (Australian Medical Association 2015; McCausland et al. 2017; Shepherd et al. 2017). The experience of imprisonment can contribute to poor mental health (Baldry et al. 2015).

Imprisonment removes people from their land, community and family. As a result, it is challenging for services to improve the mental health of Indigenous Australians who have contact with the criminal justice system. The use of culturally immersive programs, Indigenous sentencing courts (for example, Koori court), on-Country programs and parenting programs can result in positive social and emotional wellbeing outcomes for Indigenous people and their communities (Bennett 2016; Marchetti 2009; Palmer 2013).

Key statistics

Export

This information is presented from survey data. Counts refer to prisoners who participated in the survey. See the downloadable excel workbook for notes related to this data and for alternative text.

In 2018–19, 73% of Indigenous adults reported that they get the emotional support and help they need from their family. A similar proportion (74%) of Indigenous adults reported that their family really tries to help them (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

In 2014–15,

  • 90% of Indigenous Australians felt able to have a say with family and friends, some, most or all the time
  • 82% of Indigenous Australians had family or friends they could confide in outside the household
  • 82% of Indigenous Australians were able to obtain support in a time of crisis from a family member living outside the household
  • 97% had participated in sport, social or community activities in the last 12 months (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

In 2014–15, 84% of Indigenous Australians felt safe at home alone after dark. 78% of Indigenous Australians were not a victim of physical or threatened violence in the last 12 months (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

In 2019–20, the most common reasons for substantiated notifications for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children were emotional abuse (6,690 or 47% and 18,999 or 57%, respectively), neglect (4,531 or 32% and 6,015 or 18%, respectively), and physical abuse (2,018 or 14% and 4,687 or 14%, respectively) (AIHW 2021a).

In 2018–19, among the estimated 27,200 members of the Stolen Generations aged 50 and over, 43% had ever been diagnosed with a mental health condition. They were 1.3 times as likely to have been diagnosed with a mental health condition compared to the Indigenous reference group aged 50 and over who were not removed from their families (35%) (AIHW 2021b).

In 2018, one-third (33% or 101 people) of surveyed Indigenous prison entrants aged 18 years and over reported having been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, compared with 44% (211 people) of non-Indigenous entrants. More than 1 in 5 Indigenous prison entrants (21% or 65 people) reported a history of self-harm; the same proportion (21% or 103 people) was reported for non-Indigenous prison entrants. Non-Indigenous dischargees were more likely to report an improvement in their mental health during their time in prison (42%) compared with Indigenous dischargees (35%) (AIHW 2019c).

Between 1991–92 and 2018–19, of the 451 Indigenous adult deaths in custody (police and prison custody), more than a quarter (27% or 124 deaths) were self-inflicted (Doherty & Bricknell 2020).

notification

A notification is contact made to an authorised department by people or other bodies alleging child abuse or neglect, child maltreatment or harm to a child.

substantiations

When a notification of abuse, neglect, maltreatment or harm to a child is made, it is investigated by the authorised department.

The notification is substantiated if it is concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe that the child had been, was being, or was likely to be, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed.

Substantiation does not require sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution and does not imply that treatment or case management was provided. Substantiations also include cases where there is no suitable caregiver, such as when children have been abandoned or their parents are deceased.

This information was compiled from the following data sources: National Prisoner Health Data Collection (NPHDC) 2018, National Deaths in Custody Program (NDCP), National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2014–15 and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19. More information about these data sources and their data quality is available in Data sources.

For more information about the health of Australia’s prisoners please see AIHW report: The health of Australia’s prisoners 2018.

Among prison entrants, people in custody and prison dischargees who were approached to participate in the 2018 National Prisoner Health Data Collection (NPHDC), some did not consent to participate. Therefore, information relating to the mental health of prison entrants, people in custody and prison dischargees does not necessarily represent the total prison population. For prison entrants, people in custody and prison dischargees, the data excludes New South Wales, which did not provide data for these items (AIHW 2019c).

Information relating to self-inflicted deaths in custody includes self-harm, whether intentional, unintentional or unknown, and accidental hangings (Doherty & Bricknell 2020).

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).

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 1997. Australian social trends, crime and justice: the criminal justice system. ABS Cat no: 4102.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2016. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social survey 2014–15. 4714.0. Canberra: ABS.

AIFS (Australian Institute of Family Studies) 2020. Indigenous families. Viewed 23 June 2020.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2018a. Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia 2018. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2018b. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Stolen Generations and descendants: numbers, demographic characteristics and selected outcomes. Cat. no. IHW 195. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019a. Indigenous community safety. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 04 March 2021.

AIHW 2019b. Youth justice in Australia 2017–18. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019c. The health of Australia’s prisoners 2018. Cat. no. PHE 246. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2020. Child protection Australia 2018–19. Child welfare series no. 72. Cat. no. CWS 74. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2021a. Child protection Australia 2019–20. Cat. no. CWS 78. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2021b. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Stolen Generations aged 50 and over: updated analyses for 2018–19. Cat. no. IHW 257. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW & NIAA (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & National Indigenous Australians Agency) 2020. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework 2020 web report. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 17 May 2021, https://www.indigenoushpf.gov.au/measures.

AMA (Australian Medical Association) 2015. 2015 AMA Report card on Indigenous health. Closing the Gap on Indigenous imprisonment rates. Barton: Australian Medical Association.

Bailey C, Powell M & Brubacher SP 2017. The attrition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous child sexual abuse cases in 2 Australian jurisdictions. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 23(2):178.

Baldry E, McCausland R, Dowse L & McEntyre E 2015. A predictable and preventable path: Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities in the criminal justice system. Australia: University of NSW.

Beacroft L, Richards K, Andrevski H & Rosevear L 2011. Community night patrols in the Northern Territory: Toward an improved performance and reporting framework. Australian Institute of Criminology Technical and Background Paper 47. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Bennett P 2016. Specialist courts for sentencing Aboriginal offenders. Adelaide: Federation Press.

Blagg 2007. Models of best practice: Aboriginal community patrols in Western Australia.

Chandler MJ & Lalonde CE 2008. Cultural continuity as a moderator of suicide risk among Canada’s First Nations. Healing traditions: The mental health of Aboriginal peoples in Canada 221–248.

COAG (Council of Australian Governments) 2009. Protecting Children is Everyone’s Business: National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020. Australian Government. Canberra: COAG.

Coles J, Lee A, Taft A, Mazza D & Loxton D 2015. Childhood sexual abuse and its association with adult physical and mental health: results from a national cohort of young Australian women. Journal of interpersonal violence 30:1929–44.

Day A, Francisco A & Jones R 2013. Programs to improve interpersonal safety in Indigenous communities: evidence and issues. Canberra: Closing the Gap Clearinghouse.

DoH (Department of Health) 2019. Head to health. Canberra: Department of Health. Viewed 26 March 2020.

Doherty L & Bricknell S 2020. Deaths in custody in Australia 2018–19. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Dudgeon P, Rickwood D, Garvey D & Gridley H 2014. A History of Indigenous Psychology. In: Dudgeon P, Milroy H & Walker R (eds). Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice. Canberra: Australian Government, pp. 39-54.

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.

Green MJ, Hindmarsh G, Kariuki M, Laurens KR, Neil AL & Katz I et al. 2019. Mental disorders in children known to child protection services during early childhood. Medical Journal of Australia 212(1):22–28.

Korff J 2015. Bullying & lateral violence. Viewed 8 June 2021, https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence.

Loxton D, Townsend N, Dolja-Gore X, Forder P & Coles J 2019. Adverse childhood experiences and healthcare costs in adult life. Journal of child sexual abuse 28:511–25.

McCausland R, McEntyre E & Baldry E 2017. Indigenous people, mental health, cognitive disability and the criminal justice system. Indigenous Justice Clearinghouse, Policy and Reform, NSW Department of Justice.

Marchetti E 2009. Indigenous sentencing courts. Indigenous Justice Clearinghouse Brief 5. Sydney: NSW Department of Justice and Attorney-General.

Milroy H, Dudgeon P & Walker R 2014. Community Life and Development Programs – Pathways to Healing. In: Dudgeon P, Milroy H & Walker R (eds). Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice. Canberra: Australian Government, pp. 419-36.

Olsen A & Lovett R 2016. Existing knowledge, practice and responses to violence against women in Australian Indigenous communities: State of knowledge paper. Sydney: ANROWS.

Our Watch 2018. Changing the picture, Background paper: Understanding violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Melbourne: Our Watch.

Palmer D 2013. "We know they healthy cos they on Country with old people": Demonstrating the value of the Yiriman Project, 2010–2013. Final report. 2011. Western Australia: Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, Fitzroy Crossing.

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: Australian Government.

Prentice K, Blair B & O’Mullan C 2017. Sexual and family violence: Overcoming barriers to service access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients. Australian Social Work 370(2):241–52.

Productivity Commission 2016. Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: Key indicators report 2016. Productivity Commission 2016. Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: key indicators report 2016.

Productivity Commission 2019. What is known about systems that enable the ‘public health approach’ to protecting children: Consultation Paper. Canberra: Productivity Commission. Viewed 03 June 2020.

Senate Community Affairs References Committee 2010. Hear us: inquiry into hearing health in Australia. Canberra.

Shepherd SM, Ogloff JRP, Shea D, Pfeifer JE & Paradies Y 2017. Aboriginal prisoners and cognitive impairment: the impact of dual disadvantage on Social and Emotional Wellbeing. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 61:385–97.

Tilbury C, Burton J, Sydenham E, Boss R & Louw T 2013. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle: Aims and Core Elements, Submission 93, Attachment 2. Victoria: SNAICC.

Titterton A 2017. Indigenous access to family law in Australia and caring for Indigenous children. University of New South Wales Law Journal 40 (1):146.

Willis M 2010. Community safety in Australian Indigenous communities: Service providers’ perceptions. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Download data

Data tables: Family & community
XLSX, 0.1 MB

Related publications

  • Improving the mental health of Indigenous children and young people in child protection
    Author: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
    Published: 14/07/2021
  • Beyond evidence-deficit narratives in Indigenous suicide prevention
    Author: Pat Dudgeon, Abigail Bray, Ian Ring and Rob McPhee
    Published: 14/07/2021
  • Connection between family, kinship and social and emotional wellbeing
    Author: Pat Dudgeon, Shol Blustein, Abigail Bray, Tom Calma, Rob McPhee and Ian Ring
    Published: 14/07/2021
  • All related publications