Focus Topics

topic 2 | Activity 5: Health and wellbeing

Before colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived in family and community groups and moved across the land following seasonal changes. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concept of health is not just about the individual person, but a whole-of-life view that includes the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the community. Swann et al 1

Prior to European settlement, it is estimated that there were between 315,000 and 750,000 people living in Australia, with upper estimates being over a million.

British settlers brought with them a range of diseases such as measles, smallpox and tuberculosis. These diseases, in combination with the direct violence and many massacres that were perpetrated, throughout the whole of Australia, by European soldiers and settlers, resulted in countless deaths. In addition to this, the mass appropriation of land and water by the British Crown denied people access to the resources that were essential to sustaining health, social and emotional wellbeing.

The limited information that is available suggests that the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander population had declined to around 60,000 by the 1920s.2

Today the burden of disease, poor socioeconomic status and severe disadvantage of the Indigenous Australians is a testament to a history of colonisation and its continuation. The practice of colonisation targeted Aboriginal people in a ‘deliberate and calculated’ manner which aimed to ‘displace and distance people from their land and resources’. Sherwood3

Discrimination and the destruction of identity, language, culture and land, that resulted from colonisation, profoundly impacted the health and wellbeing of Australian Indigenous peoples and continues to do so today. This is covered in greater detail in Section 4.

Factors known as the ‘social and cultural determinants of health’ impact the health and wellness of individuals. They are the conditions that people are born into, grow and live in and include early child development, employment, education, access to healthcare, and social exclusion. These determinants play a large part in the health inequities between population groups, particularly the differences between Australian Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Australians.1

There are a number of factors that have been found to support the health of Australian Indigenous peoples, including cultural continuity, self-determination, supporting Indigenous knowledge systems, maintaining family networks, and strong community governance.1

Currently, research is being undertaken in the Mayi Kuwayu National Study of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Wellbeing, to demonstrate the link that culture has to health and wellbeing:4

Our people and communities have been saying for a long time that strong culture is vital to our health and wellbeing. However, there is a lack of evidence that shows how and why this may be so. The Mayi Kuwayu Study aims to provide this evidence. Aboriginal people across this land have held the world’s oldest continuing cultures for a long time. The strength of our varied cultures is different across the country and is a result of Australia’s history. There is a desire among many people and communities to strengthen, maintain and revive culture. These strengths may be used to overcome the impacts of colonisation, and help to ensure ongoing resilience and connection to country, people and culture. Mayi Kuwayu Website

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