The National Aboriginal Health Strategy defines Aboriginal health as, “not just the physical well-being of an individual but…the social, emotional and cultural well-being of the whole community”.

This means that Aboriginal health is much broader than the health of the individual alone – it includes the entire community.

For professionals working with Aboriginal children and families in health and community settings, it is important to understand Aboriginal concepts of health.

This knowledge can help professionals to create culturally safe service environments and practices, develop relationships and collaborative partnerships with local Aboriginal communities, and support the factors essential to the health of Aboriginal children and families.

The social determinants of Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing

A social and emotional wellbeing framework is considered a culturally appropriate approach to Aboriginal mental health.

The framework reflects a broader understanding of health and takes a holistic and whole-of-life view of health.

While factors such as income, employment and housing will determine Aboriginal health outcomes, so too will a range of other factors including a person’s connection to their country, culture, community and family.

The social and emotional wellbeing framework also recognises that self-determination, continuation of culture and community governance are vital factors to the health of Aboriginal children and families.

The continuing impact of colonisation on Aboriginal health

European arrival severely disrupted the foundations of Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing.

The forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families is one example of practices that separated families and communities  as well as disconnected families from country and culture,– the very elements important to Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing.

Recent research has identified how the “enduring legacy of colonisation on Aboriginal life has been pervasive and affected multiple generations and extends to all dimensions of the holistic notion of Aboriginal wellbeing, including psychological, social, spiritual and cultural aspects of life and connection to land.”  

These experiences have resulted in both the widespread, long-term intergenerational grief and loss and also exposed Aboriginal communities to increased risk factors to their social and emotional wellbeing.

Closing the Gap - Aboriginal health today

Aboriginal people face many health challenges and higher levels of disadvantage compared to other Australians.

Australia’s Welfare 2015 report identified that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to experience lower levels of education, employment, household income and wealth, and are more likely to live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, when compared to other Australians.

Closing the Gap 2015 showed the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is 10.6 years for males and 9.5 years for females. The report also shows that from 2008 until 2012 chronic disease accounted for 70 per cent of the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The experience of racism has also been linked to poor mental health and wellbeing, with recent research revealing that Aboriginal people’s experience of racism is both high in terms of incidence and persistence.

While Aboriginal people are confronted with health risks, there are also many strengths of Aboriginal culture that influence good health outcomes.

A physical and spiritual connection to land or ‘country’ is an important foundation for the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal people.

Kinship systems and community relationships are vital in supporting that connection to country and culture.

Supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal children and families

For non-Indigenous health professionals and services it is important to not only understand the history and context of Aboriginal health, but to recognise the need to work in collaborative partnerships with local Aboriginal communities.

Further reading