About this topic
Social and emotional wellbeing is the foundation of physical and mental health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Indigenous Australians). It takes a holistic view of health as it recognises that connection to land, sea, culture and spirituality all influence wellbeing. Social, historical and political factors can also affect wellbeing.
Social and emotional wellbeing is a collectivist approach to an individual’s self-concept: the self is inseparable from, and embedded within, family and community. Cultural groups and individuals have their own, unique experiences of social and emotional wellbeing (Gee et al. 2014).
Social and emotional wellbeing problems are distinct from mental health problems and mental illness, although they can interact and influence each other (PM&C 2017). Even with good social and emotional wellbeing, people can experience mental illness. People with mental health problems or mental illness can live and function at a high level with adequate support yet continue to have social and emotional wellbeing needs (AIHW & NIAA 2020).
Indigenous perspective of health
The concept of health is complex, and there is no clear definition that is consistent across cultures. For researchers, practitioners and policy-makers to improve the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, it is important for a definition to be agreed upon. Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations were established in the late 1970s. Their efforts to define health from an Indigenous perspective resulted in concepts that are based on holistic health, such as social and emotional wellbeing. In 2004, the National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing 2004–09 was established (Gee et al. 2014). It has 9 guiding principles that underpin social and emotional wellbeing:
- Health as holistic
- The right to self-determination
- The need for cultural understanding
- The impact of history in trauma and loss
- Recognition of human rights
- The impact of racism and stigma
- Recognition of the centrality of kinship
- Recognition of cultural diversity
- Recognition of Aboriginal strengths.
The National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing 2017–2023
The National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing 2017–2023 (the Framework) proposes a model of social and emotional wellbeing with 7 overlapping domains:
- mind and emotions
- family and kin
- spirituality and ancestors (PM&C 2017; Gee et al. 2014).
The Framework is intended to guide and inform Indigenous mental health and wellbeing reforms in Australia. It describes the importance of social and emotional wellbeing for Indigenous Australians and provides a model of it.
The Framework was developed under the guidance of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Advisory Group. It was endorsed by the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council in February 2017.
Domains of social and emotional wellbeing
Social and emotional wellbeing views the self as inseparable from, and embedded within, family and community: the self is surrounded by 7 overlapping domains that are sources of wellbeing and connection. The domains support a strong and positive Indigenous Australian identity. The model also acknowledges that history, politics and society all affect the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australians (Gee et al. 2014).
The 7 domains are:
Connection to body Physical health; feeling strong and healthy and able to physically participate as fully as possible in life.
Connection to mind and emotions Mental health; the ability to manage thoughts and feelings. Maintaining positive mental, cognitive, emotional and psychological wellbeing is fundamental to an individual’s overall health.
Connection to family and kinship These connections are central to the functioning of Indigenous Australian societies. Strong family and kinship systems can provide a sense of belonging, identity, security, and stability for Indigenous people.
Connection to community Providing opportunities for individuals and families to connect with each other, support each other and work together.
Connection to culture Maintaining a secure sense of cultural identity by participating in practices associated with cultural rights and responsibilities.
Connection to Country Helping to ‘underpin identity and a sense of belonging’. Country refers to an area on which Indigenous people have a traditional or spiritual association. Country is viewed as a living entity that provides nourishment for the body, mind and spirit.
Connection to spirituality and ancestors Providing ‘a sense of purpose and meaning’. The mental health and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australians can be influenced by their relationship with traditional beliefs and metaphysical worldviews.
AIHW & NIAA (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & National Indigenous Australians Agency) 2020. Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Health performance framework. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 19 May 2021.
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.
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.