Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander conceptions of healing, empowerment and leadership differ from Western concepts and must be considered if the mental health and social and emotional well-being of the nation's first Australians are to improve, according to the co-chair of a new group.
Professor Pat Dudgeon, from The University of Western Australia, will help steer the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Advisory Group towards addressing enormous disparities in mental health outcomes for Indigenous people.
Professor Dudgeon, from the Bardi people of WA's Kimberley, is known for her passionate work in psychology and Indigenous issues, including her leadership in higher education.
"The life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is 10 years lower than that of other Australians, and intentional self-harm was the leading cause of death from external causes for Indigenous males between 2001 and 2005," Professor Dudgeon and Dr Lyn Littlefield wrote in a report to the United Nations.
"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians comprise 2.5 per cent of the Australian population and continue to suffer disproportionately from the consequences of European settlement.
"The small, dispersed nature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations and communities, the lack of infrastructure required to establish and maintain health and well-being in remote communities, the extraordinarily high levels of morbidity and mortality, and extreme poverty and disadvantage all pose major challenges to mental health service delivery."
Professor Dudgeon said initiatives adapted from non-Aboriginal concepts of mental health tended to overlook sources of resilience and recovery found within one of the oldest continuous living cultures in human history.
"Cultural concepts such as connection to land, culture, spirituality, ancestry, family and community have been identified as protective factors which can serve as sources of resilience and help to moderate the impact of stressful circumstances at individual, family and community levels," she said.
"Respect for the role of culture as a resilience-building, preventative health measure must be at the heart of any plan or service."
Professor Dudgeon said programs should be funded only if they could demonstrate meaningful community engagement and ownership.