Time for action on Indigenous mental health

Close the Gap Day, Saturday March 24

Indigenous mental health continues to be overlooked, despite worrying statistics, according to a leading Aboriginal psychologist and member of the Government’s new National Mental Health Commission, speaking ahead of Close the Gap Day tomorrow.

Indigenous mental health facts:

  • Death rates from suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males and females are over twice the rate for other Australian males and almost twice the rate for other Australian females – Mindframe.
  • Nearly a third (31%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 18 years and over had experienced high/very high levels of psychological distress, which was more than twice the rate for non-Indigenous people - Australian Institute of Health & Welfare (AIHW) report, 2008.
  • The rate of hospitalisation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people diagnosed with mental disorders due to psychoactive substance use was four to five times higher than the rate for other Australians – Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004.
  • Depression has been identified as one of the six most frequent problems managed by GPs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients – AIHW, 2004.

“We need to focus on the mental health gap,” said Professor Patricia Dudgeon, a member of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA) and Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society (APS). “There is a gap between the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians, and there needs to be effort made to address that gap.”

“The statistics aren’t new but they are concerning. Despite a national focus on mental health we still don’t have a National Aboriginal Mental Health Plan,” she said.

Professor Dudgeon is working with the APS to address the mental health issues of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by undertaking a number of initiatives, as part of the Society’s Reconciliation Action Plan — a whole of organisation plan outlining actions to address inequities between Indigenous and other Australians and establish genuine partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and organisations.

She said by harnessing its 20,000 strong membership, including members working in health, government, academia and business, the APS had an opportunity to make a significant difference by influencing the way psychologists were educated and trained, and how they practised.

“As psychologists, our job is to help close the mental health gap by putting Indigenous mental health on the agenda. We need to ensure there are greater numbers of Indigenous psychologists, that we support Indigenous psychology students and that psychologists and other health professionals are ‘culturally competent’, that they are trained to work effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The inclusion of more Indigenous content in university psychology education is an essential part of this,” she said. 

She said: “A sense of identity, strong family bonds and social connections are some of the positive aspects of Indigenous culture that underpin wellbeing and mental health. We need to understand those factors and promote effective culturally appropriate mental health services and programs to promote social and emotional wellbeing across all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, whether urban, rural or remote.”

With this aim in mind, the APS has established a web resource, funded by the Department of Health and Ageing, for those interested in learning about services and programs that are working well in a range of Indigenous contexts (www.sewbmh.org.au).

Professor Dudgeon called on the Government to assist this work by making a tangible commitment to Closing the Gap in the area of social and emotional well-being and mental health of Indigenous people.

“We need the Government to enact its own Reconciliation Action Plan working in partnerships with relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, and a great first step would be developing a National Aboriginal Mental Health Plan,” Professor Dudgeon said.

- Ends-

For media enquiries please email media@psychology.org.au or call Rebecca Matthews on 03 8662 3358 or Judith Heywood on 03 8662 3301.

Professor Pat Dudgeon FAPS is from the Bardi people of the Kimberley in Western Australia. She was the first Aboriginal psychologist to graduate in Australia and has made outstanding contributions to Indigenous psychology and higher education. She is a research fellow at the School of Indigenous Studies, University of Western Australia. Her roles include Chief Investigator in a ARC (Indigenous Discovery) grant, Cultural Continuity and Change: Indigenous Solutions to Mental Health Issues.  She was the Head of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University, for some 19 years, leading the field in providing culturally appropriate education. Current committee memberships include: Commissioner, National Mental Health Commission; Chair, Indigenous Mental Health Advisory Group to DoHA; Member, National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Advisory Group; Member, The National Indigenous Health Equality Council; Member, Research Advisory Committee for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation; and Steering Committee and Founding Member of Australian Indigenous Psychologist Association (AIPA).

For more information about Reconciliation Action Plans, visit: http://www.reconciliation.org.au/home/reconciliation-action-plans

More information about the APS Reconciliation Action Plan is here: http://www.psychology.org.au/RAP/APS/

For more information about the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, visit: http://www.mindframe-media.info/site/index.cfm?display=84362

To find out about services that support the social and emotional wellbeing and mental health needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, see: http://www.sewbmh.org.au/

More information on AIPA, which was established under the auspices of the APS, is available at www.indigenouspsychology.com.au.


The APS is the largest professional association for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 20,000 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to peoples’ lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.