Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians 


Facts and statistics about social and emotional wellbeing and suicide

Media IconIt is important to note that caution should be exercised in examining information and data on patterns of mental illness and suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as accurate statistics and population estimates are unavailable. There may therefore be limitations with regards to the quality of data elicited from existing research. Discussion in the field draws both on available Australian research and limited data on hospitalisation and mortality rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The following information is presented to progress the development of an understanding of the factors that influence and impact on the mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

On Tuesday 20th March 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released the 2010 Causes of Death data.  The suicide statistics on this webpage were updated in April 2012 to reflect the new data.


Click on the links below, for a quick link to relevant sections on this page.

Definition
Population Context
Mental Health
Mental Disorders
Alcohol and Other Drug Use
Indigenous Children and Young People


Media IconDefinition

An Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person is a person of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives.


Media IconPopulation Context1, 2

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprised 2.5% (550,000 people) of the total Australian population in 2009. Torres Strait Islanders comprised 6% of the total Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. Of these, 90% identify as Aboriginal, 6% identity as Torres Strait Islanders, and 4% identify as both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
  • A significant proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (68%) live outside the major urban centres. In 2006, around one in four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians lived in remote areas compared with only one in 50 other Australians.
  • Over half of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population live in either NSW (30%) or QLD (28%). Although the Northern Territory (NT) has only 12% of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people they represent 30% of the total NT population, which is the highest proportion in any state or territory. More than half (58%) of all Torres Strait Islander people live in Queensland.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are a young population with a median age of 21 years compared with 37 years for other Australians. As a result, it can be misleading to make direct comparisons with the broader Australian population which has a different age structure.
  • The estimated life expectancy at birth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is much lower than for other Australians.

Media IconMental Health

Some people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, prefer the term 'social and emotional wellbeing', rather than 'mental health' because of its more positive and holistic connotations3

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have traditionally viewed health as not only including the physical health of the person, but also the social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of the whole community. Traditional cultures also featured a strong bond with the land and a personal connection to the lands of one’s own people.
  • In 2008, 31% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (aged over 15 years) reported high to very high levels of psychological distress4.
  • Trauma and grief have been identified as significant issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and for individuals. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people carry a significant burden of loss and bereavement from an early age, due in part to the high rates of mortality, illness, incarceration, deaths in custody and involuntary hospitalisation among people in their communities.
  • Any consideration of mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must be set within the context of Australian history and social change. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and communities continue to be affected by the European colonisation in terms of the loss of traditional lands, the forced separation of families and the loss of cultural identity.
  • Data on hospitalisation and mortality due to serious mental disorders and illnesses provides a main source of information about mental disorders in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These data sources indicate that5

Mental health conditions were responsible for 4.2% of all hospitalisations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for the period 2005-2007. These conditions included mental and behavioural disorders (such as schizophrenia and psychoactive substance abuse) and other mental health conditions (such as postnatal depression and Alzheimer’s disease);

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females aged 15-54 had higher rates of hospitalisation compared to non-Indigenous females. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males had higher rates for hospitalisations for mental health related conditions than other non-indigenous males for all age groups (over four years old) 

  • While mental illness and emotional distress may cause Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to come into contact with the criminal justice system, incarceration may also be a risk factor for mental illness6.
  • Several surveys have shown that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are less likely than other Australians to drink alcohol, but those who do drink are more likely to consume it at hazardous levels7.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also at high risk of ill health when using illicit substances such as marijuana, heroin, amphetamines and inhalants (e.g. petrol, glue or aerosols). In 2008, 20% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 15 years reported having used an illicit substance in the 12 months prior to the survey8.
  • Some experiences which others may label as mental illness – such as particular feelings, beliefs or hallucinations including hearing voices – may be seen by an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person as a spiritual or personal issue.

Media IconMental Disorders

  • Research has found that within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, mental disorders are the second highest cause of ‘burden of disease’9. The Australian Bureau of Statistics define burden of disease as ‘the loss of health and wellbeing of Australians due to premature mortality, disability and other non-fatal events’10.
  • It is important to note that research and data related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is not always representative of the entire Indigenous population. It is therefore expected that figures are likely to be underestimates. For example, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare notes:
    ‘a different question format was used for Indigenous respondents living in non-remote areas compared with those in remote areas. That is, those living in non-remote areas were asked if they had any ‘other’ long term health conditions and were shown a prompt card with a list of examples, including a number of specific mental health-related conditions such as depression and anxiety. Remote respondents, on the other hand, were simply asked to state any ‘other’ long-term conditions they had or were currently experiencing without being prompted with a list of possible conditions.’11
  • In 2003, mental health conditions contributed to 16% of the total disease burden experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people12.
  • From 2004 to 2005, Indigenous Australians were twice as likely as non-Indigenous Australians to be hospitalised for “mental or behavioural disorders”13.
  • The most common type of mental health or behavioural disorders for which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were hospitalised was psychoactive substances (38%), followed by schizophrenia, schizotypal and delusional disorders (26%) and mood disorders (15%)14.
  • During 2008 approximately 10% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people visited a doctor or health professional for feelings of psychological distress in the four weeks prior to the survey15.
  • Depression has been identified as one of the six most frequent problems managed by GPs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients16.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent 2.5% of the Australian population. However, they accounted for 5.6% of the mental health-related emergency department occasions of service from 2007-200817.
  • Human Rights of People with Mental Illness found that anti-social and self-destructive behaviour, often the result of undiagnosed mental and social distress, brought Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into frequent contact with the criminal justice system18.

Media IconAlcohol and Other Drug Use

  • Several surveys have shown that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are less likely than other Australian people to drink alcohol, but those who do drink are more likely to consume it at hazardous levels19.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also put themselves at a high risk of ill health when using illicit substances such as marijuana, heroin, amphetamines and inhalants (e.g. petrol, glue or aerosols). In 2008, 20% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 15 years reported having used an illicit substance in the 12 months prior to the survey20.
  • Indigenous people were almost twice as likely to be recent users of illicit drugs as other Australians (24.2% compared with 13.0%) 21.
  • Adults aged 40 years and over who personally experienced removal from family were more likely to be a current daily smoker (49% compared with 40%) and to have used illicit substances (23% compared with 13%)22.
  • There is limited national data on petrol sniffing, but case studies indicate that the practice continues to be a major problem in some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities23. Petrol sniffing causes confusion, aggression, lack of coordination, hallucinations, respiratory problems and chronic disability, including mental impairment24.

Media IconIndigenous Children and Young People

  • Almost one third of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (16-24 years) reported high to very high levels of psychological distress in 2008. This is more than twice the rate of non-Indigenous young Australians 25.
  • A 2005 survey in Western Australia looked at the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal children and young people aged 4 to 17 years26. The survey revealed that:

Almost one quarter (24%) of Aboriginal children were rated by their parents as being at high risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties. This compares with 15% of children in the non-Aboriginal population;

Growing up in areas of extreme isolation, where adherence to traditional culture and ways of life is strongest, may be protective against emotional and behavioural difficulties in Aboriginal children;

Living in households with high occupancy may also be protective against emotional and behavioural difficulties, as compared to low occupancy households;

Males were twice as likely as females to be at high risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties;

Children were more likely to be at high risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties in families that had experienced more stressful life events;

Associations exist between the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal carers and their children and the past policies and practices of forced separation of Aboriginal people from their natural families; and

Just over one quarter of young Aboriginal people (27%) drink alcohol, while 30% of young people have used marijuana at some time in their lives. In areas of extreme isolation, only 8% of young Aboriginal people drink alcohol compared with 31% of young people in the metropolitan area.

 

For more information and culturally appropriate advice, see the guidelines for providing mental health first aid to an Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander person. 

 


References

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2010). The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. ABS Cat. No. 4704.0. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government.

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2009). Measuring the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Cat. no. IHW 24. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

[3] Australian Health Ministers. (2003). National Mental Health Plan 2003-2008. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government.

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2010). Op. Cit.

[5] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2009). Op. Cit.

[6] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. (1993). Human Rights and Mental Illness: Report of the inquiry into the human rights of people with mental illness. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government.

[7] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2010). Op. Cit.

[8] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey. ABS Catalogue. No. 4714.0. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government.

[9] Vos ,T., Barker, B., Stanley, L. & Lopez, A. (2007). The burden of disease and injury in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples 2003. Brisbane, QLD: University of Queensland.

[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2010). Measures of Australia’s Progress. ABS Catalogue. No. 1370.0. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government.

[11] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2009). Op. Cit.

[12] Begg, S., Vos, T., Barker, B., Stevenson, T., Stanley, L. and Lopez, A. (2007). The Burden of Disease and Injury in Australia, 2003, Catalogue. No. PHE 82. Canberra, ACT: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

[13] Australian Bureau of Statistics & Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2010). The Health and Welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Oct 2010. ABS Cat. No 4704.

[14] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2009). Op. Cit.

[15] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2009). Op. Cit.

[16] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). Op. Cit.

[17] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2010). Mental health services in Australia 2007–08. Mental health series no. 12. Cat. No. HSE 88. Canberra, ACT: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

[18] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. (1993). Op. Cit.

[19] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2008). 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: detailed findings. Drug statistics series no. 22. Cat. No. PHE 107. Canberra, ACT: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

[20] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008) Op. Cit.

[21] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2008). Op. Cit.

[22] Australian Bureau of Statistics & Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2010). Op. Cit.  

[23] Dingwall, K.M., Lewis, M.S., Maruff, P., & Cairney, S. (2010). Assessing cognition following petrol sniffing for Indigenous Australians. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 44, 631-639.

[24] D'Abbs, P., & MacLean, S. (2000). Petrol Sniffing in Aboriginal Communities: A review of interventions. Darwin, NT: Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Tropical Health.

[25] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). The health and welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, an overview. Cat. no. IHW 42. Canberra, ACT: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

[26] Zubrick, S. R., Silburn, S. R., Lawrence, D. M., Mitrou, F. G., Dalby, R. B., Blair, E. M., Griffin, J., & Li, J. (2005). The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: The social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal children and young people. Perth, WA: Curtin University of Technology and Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.