The social and emotional wellbeing concept (SEWB) developed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is broader than mainstream concepts and recognises not just the physical wellbeing of the individual but the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the whole community. It also includes the cyclical concept of life–death–life (NAHSWP 1989).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander constructs of self, identity and meaning are complex and diverse, incorporating families, kinship and extended clan groups. These constructs sit alongside an elaborate set of relational bonds and reciprocal obligations. They may also incorporate a profound sense of continuity through Aboriginal law, spirituality and Dreaming. Far from being anthropological artefacts, they directly influence daily interactions in urban, regional and remote settings.

The process of malignant grief that occurs in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a result of persistent intergenerational trauma and stress is invasive, collective and cumulative. It causes individuals and communities to become unable to function. Many people die of this grief (Milroy, cited in Parker 2011).

Many Stolen Generation survivors struggle their whole lives to heal from their experience of trauma. They are vulnerable to the retriggering of memories and feelings associated with their experience of forcible removal. Survivors maintain that these are human reactions not necessarily connected to mental health issues.

Implications for practice

  • Learn about the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences, cultural values and processes.
  • Interpretations of health, mental health, mental illness and wellbeing are vital first steps in achieving culturally competent and safe practice.
  • Support to cope with the distress invoked by triggers is part of the healing process for the Stolen Generations.
  • Trauma-informed strategies can help to manage the risk of unintentionally triggering unresolved trauma.Top of page

Implications for service delivery

  • Some common Western service models and responses can be inappropriate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. For example, hospitalisation can be traumatic for some people due to their being removed from community and traditional ways of life. It can also trigger pain, trauma, loss and grief associated with invasion, colonisation, segregation, assimilation and more recent policies.
    Give priority to culturally appropriate practice and service alternatives, including Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.
  • Seek advice and guidance from:
    • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and mental health practitioners!
    • social–emotional wellbeing workers!
      Elders and leaders
    • cultural consultants
    • traditional healers
    • Aboriginal community-controlled health/SEWB organisations.
  • Explore connections with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services and local Indigenous-specific knowledge.



Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice, 2nd edition (Dudgeon, Milroy & Walker eds. 2014) was funded by the Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Kulungu Aboriginal Research Development Unit at the Telethon Kids Institute, in collaboration with the University of Western Australia.

The 2nd edition Working together ebook and PDF file is available to download from the Telethon kids institute website.

Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice (Purdie, Dudgeon & Walker eds. 2010).Top of page
Refer to following text for a text description of the artwork by 'Guthlan' Carolyn Fyfe entitled 'Journey'
Journey 'Guthlan' Carolyn Fyfe

'Guthlan' Carolyn Fyfe discusses her journey of recovery and healing:

The art is called the 'Journey' … The journey of recovery and healing starts from the outer circle identifying the challenges that a person would experience. The colours:

  • Brown—the challenges to make the change in your thoughts/emotions (trying to move ahead)
  • Black are the dark times (depression)
  • Mauve—identified the reasons and have moved forward
  • White—you have the control
As you get closer to the centre it represents the wellness of health—socially, emotionally and spiritually.
It is a long journey and you need to have people who can let you explain your story and they theirs.