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Mental Illness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

Posted by Australian Catholic Bishops Conference on 21 October 2019
Mental Illness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People


Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, severe mood disorders are about 1.2 times the rate of the general population, while among women it is the same as the general rate. (1)

However, there are geographic differences, with 2.5% for Mornington Island, 6% for Bourke and 1% for the Kimberley. (2)

A survey of Aboriginal people attending a community health service in Victoria showed that 54% were suffering from psychiatric illness and that depression was the most common form (3).

Another community survey showed high levels of anxiety and depression among this population, with a rate of 50% being three times higher than for other Australians.(4)


Community surveys show rates of anxiety of 1.5% on Mornington Island, 1% in the Kimberley and 5% in Bourke. The Western Australian Child Health Survey showed that up to one quarter of surveyed children aged 4-17 may be at risk of developing behavioural disorders associated with anxiety conditions (5)


The experience of psychosis in traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture was likely to be rare. Tribal people in central Australia have a rate of schizophrenia of 0.4%. (6) This contrasts with the high rate of psychosis currently affecting this population. Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander men are admitted to hospital with mental disorders due to psychoactive substance misuse up to 4.5% higher than the general Australian population.

Among women it was 3.3%. The same population had admission rates for schizophrenia at 2.7 times the expected rate and among women it was 2.5 times.

Psychosis in the context of substance abuse is a significant issue for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population at present.

One opinion is that mental illness was present in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture prior to European colonization of Australia, but was probably a fairly rare occurrence. The much greater prevalence of mental illness in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander population currently is a reflection of the significant disruption to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society and consequent social and emotional deprivation.

Management of mental illness requires a strong emphasis on cultural safety, along with the recognition of family, culture and community in any healing process. (7)

  1. Pink, B, Allbon, P, The Health and Welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 2008. Canberra. Australian Bureau of Statistics
  2. Hunter, E. Mental Health in Thompson, N editor: The Health of Indigenous Australians. Melbourne. Oxford University Press 2003.
  3. McKendrick,j, Cutterm, T, Mac Kenzie, A., Chiu, E, The pattern of psychiatric morbidity in a Victorian urban Aboriginal general practice population. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 1992: 26; 40-7
  4. Jorm, A, Bouchier, SJ, Cvetkovski S, Stewart, G, Mental Health of Indigenous Australians; a review of findings from community surveys. Medical Journal of Australia 2012: 196: 118-121
  5. Zubrick,SR, Silburn, SR, Lawrence DM, Motrou, FG, Dalby, RB, Blair RB et al, The West Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey. Curtin University of Technology and Telethon Institute for Child Health Research 2005
  6. Kidson, M, Jones, I, Psychiatric Disorders among Aborigines of the Australian Western Desert. Archives of general psychiatry. 1968: 19: 413-17
  7. Parker, R., and Milroy, H., Mental Illness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, Working Together 2010 telethonkids.org.au Chapter 7.

If you haven't been able to defuse the crisis, then ring a mental health professional.

  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
  • Crisis support lines 24/7 Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
  • Mens Line Australia 1300 78 99 78
  • Family Drug Support 1300 368 186

This article is intended to be a resource for Lasallians with mental illness and their families. We thank and acknowledge the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for this resource.

More info and resources can be found at https://www.catholic.org.au/donotbeafraid

Author:Australian Catholic Bishops Conference
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