Mental health and Aboriginal people

Mental health statistics show Aboriginal people are much more likely to suffer from dementia than other Australians.

But mental health is worst where you wouldn’t expect it to be.

Selected statistics

Percentage of Aboriginal people who are suffering from some form of psychological distress; same figure for all Australians: 20% [8].
Percentage of Aboriginal people aged over 45 years with dementia. Same rate for non-Aboriginal people: 2.6% [1].
Times Aboriginal people living in remote communities are more likely to develop dementia than people living in countries such as Africa, India or Indonesia [2].

Mental health worsens “dramatically”

A report in 2014 found “dramatic” increases in Aboriginal rates of youth suicide, anxiety and depression, as well as cognitive disability and mental health among offenders, and perinatal mental health [6].

Government programs need to take a long-term view rather than employ quick “start and stop” programmes or provide too narrowly focused and inadequate mental health services.

Aboriginal mental health and suicide still need to be researched more.

Improving mental health outcomes will have a flow-on effect to other areas, including reducing high incarceration and substance abuse rates.

Reasons for bad mental health

  • Loss of land
  • Loss of culture
  • Loss of understanding where you’re coming from
  • Assessment by non-Aboriginal criteria (i.e. culturally inadequate)
  • Unfinished business (e.g. previous and current Stolen Generations)

Traditional Aboriginal healing methods can support mentally ill people to recover, for example South Australia’s Ngangkari program.

A drawing of a man who is hunted by his demons, indicated by dark faces around his head. Mental illness threatens to lose the Dreaming. Aboriginal people are almost 5 times more likely than non-Aboriginal people to develop dementia. Illustration: Chris Johnston,


Aboriginal people living in remote communities are 10 times more likely to develop dementia than people living in countries such as Africa, India and Indonesia; and 5 times more likely than non-Indigenous people [1, 2]. In the Kimberley region between 13 and 27% of elderly Aboriginal people have dementia., compared to 2.6% amongst non-Aboriginal people aged 45 and over [3].

Other statistics show that remote Aboriginal people are 26 times more likely to develop dementia at a relatively young age (between 45 and 59 years) than the rest of Australians [3].

Smoking, stroke, head injury and no formal education are the main contributors to the high rate, with the good news that most of these factors can be changed.

Other risk factors are unemployment, underemployment and low status jobs, high rates of drug and alcohol use; brain trauma and increased rates of diabetes, hypertension, renovascular and metabolic disease [3].

Mental health is worst among Aboriginal prisoners where up to 93% of Aboriginal detainees have some form of mental illness.

Another factor is less obvious. The colonisation of Australia has caused much trauma among Aboriginal people. Because they couldn’t cope with what was happening many developed mental illnesses [4].

The dispossession, loss of identity, loss of land, this has all led to a whole lot of lost people.—Liz Hayden, Aboriginal Health Unit, Graylands Hospital, WA [4]

Discriminatory behaviour also contributes to bad mental health, eroding Aboriginal people’s self-esteem and value within their community [5].

Health professionals found that just treating the psychiatric illness is not enough [4], but a holistic approach is required that takes in the historical perspective. Many Aboriginal children who were stolen from their families and grew up on missions came back as “fragmented people” [4] with mental health problems.

Video: Discussing Dementia: Losing the Dreaming

Learn about people living with dementia in the Aboriginal community. The short film features Birpai Elder Uncle Bill O’Brien discussing his experience of caring for his mother, who had dementia.


Schizophrenia is characterised by abnormal social behaviour and failure to recognize what is real. Sufferers have confused thinking, hallucinations, delusions, are socially withdrawn and lack emotional depth.

In Aboriginal communities, mental disorder is still frequently identified as spiritual disorder, hence it is treated by traditional healers, often alongside Western medical practitioners [7].

Schizophrenia is said to be at least as common in Aboriginal people as in white Australians, attributed to the post-colonial epidemic of substance abuse to cope with the trauma. Traumatic stress presents as depressive psychosis in both its unipolar and bipolar forms.

Research has found that Aboriginal people express their distress differently than non-Aboriginal people [7].

Other stressors reported most frequently by Aboriginal people were death of a family member or close friend (46%), serious illness or disability (31%), and inability to get a job (27%) [7].

Mental health study resource

Book cover of 'Working Together' Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice outlines the historical, social, cultural, and policy contexts that have shaped Aboriginal mental health and wellbeing, highlights issues that are particularly relevant to Aboriginal people, contains a section that focuses on practice within the field, and presents examples of models and programs for practitioners.

The second edition contains a number of new chapters, providing more information on children and young people; the significant impacts of mental health in the justice system; the cultural determinants of social and emotional wellbeing and intellectual and development disabilities.

Chapters include: History and Contexts, Issues and Influences, Standards, Principles and Practice, Assessment and Management, Working with Children, Families and Communities, and Healing Models and Programs.

The Telethon Kids Institute offers free copies of Working Together (PDF, e-book and hardcopy), but you will need to pay for delivery.


View article sources (8)

[1] 'Dementia danger', Koori Mail 412 p.49
[2] 'Dementia dangers', Koori Mail 487 p.9
[3] 'Dealing with dementia', Koori Mail 410 p.52
[4] 'Action urged on mental health', Koori Mail 511 p.42
[5] 'What's in a name?', Koori Mail 515 p.36
[6] 'Mental health services for Aboriginal Australians inadequate, inappropriate, report warns', ABC News 6/11/2014
[7] 'Deconstructing schizophrenia among Australia’s First People', The Stringer 9/11/2014
[8] 'Mental Health Week: Taking Indigenous Mental Health Seriously', The Wire, 14/10/2016

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:,
Aboriginal culture - Health - Mental health and Aboriginal people, retrieved 30 March 2017