When I speak about mental health, I am typically coming at it from an individualist perspective.
This means I prioritise the individual and focus on what they can modify within themselves and their immediate environment. So, if someone isn’t happy with their life, I might focus on thinking, behaviour, nutrition, medication, physical activity, sleep, hobbies etc. I might then expand out to consider the roles the person has (work, study) and the people in their support network.
This is the result of the fact that I trained in psychology in what is known as a W.E.I.R.D. country – Western, Education, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic. W.E.I.R.D psychology has a strong individualistic focus.
I think W.E.I.R.D. psychology has great value and can provide people with excellent starting points/anchors for thinking about what they can do/modify as individuals to enhance their psychological health.
But W.E.I.R.D psychology has its problems. Its focus on the individual can lead one to neglect factors and dynamics that hold together families, communities and cultures that aren’t W.E.I.R.D in nature.
In recent months, I’ve taken deliberate steps to take on different cultural perspectives in my quest to better understand and help individuals build good mental health. An example is the article I recently explored on alternative recipes for life satisfaction.
As part of this cultural exploration, I’ve been reading more on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective on wellbeing.
Psychology as a discipline has caused much damage in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, resulting in 2016 with the Australian Psychological Society making a formal Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people “acknowledging psychology’s role in contributing to the erosion of culture and to their mistreatment” https://www.psychology.org.au/About-Us/who-we-are/reconciliation-and-the-APS/APS-apology
Part of the problem has been psychology forcing its models of mental health and wellbeing onto Aboriginal people, particularly the idea that if there are signs of emotional or psychological dysfunction, then the cause lies within the individual. This concept is still strong in psychology today and we still rely on diagnostic systems that locate the dysfunction within the individual – “this person has anxiety, depression bipolar” etc.
This was both destructive and ignorant. As our understanding of Aboriginal conceptualisations of social and emotional wellbeing improve, it is becoming clear that understanding the health and wellbeing of individual Aboriginal people, requires an understanding of the wellbeing of the families and communities in which those individuals exist.
You can’t just separate a person out of their family, community, clan group, land, culture and spirituality and expect them to function well, when it was that latticework of connections that was supporting and sustaining that individual.
I’m not pretending that I have a good grasp of this material. My explorations in this area have just begun. But it does strike me that we have much to learn from Aboriginal conceptualisations of social and emotional wellbeing.
Take this diagram, for example, taken from the factsheet linked above.
At the centre, we see the “self”. But notice how many ‘connections’ surround that self. There are a couple that us W.E.I.R.D. psychologists would consider standard fare (e.g. connection to body, connection to mind), but notice that they are only 2 of 7 connection points.
Just as important are connections to spirit/spirituality/ancestors, country & land, culture, community and family/kinship. Notice also the porous boundaries between these connection categories. They are themselves all inter-related.
When you consider this, you can better understand why colonisation has been so destructive at the level of individual Aboriginal wellbeing and health and across generations, because virtually all of those connections have been severed or severely constrained through direct or indirect actions.
There are at least a couple of things I hope you might take from this picture. The first, which I have alluded to already, is a better understanding of why W.E.I.R.D. models of psychology in Australia have not been particularly helpful in addressing social and emotional suffering in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. W.E.I.R.D. psychology simply isn’t holistic enough and prioritises individual dysfunction over disruption to familial, cultural, historical, spiritual and community ties.
The second is more personal and relates to expanding your own personal model of what it means to build wellbeing in your own life.
Perhaps you have invested lots of time and effort in mind and body through healthy lifestyle changes, therapy, medication etc. Have you similarly invested effort in connections to spirit, place, culture, history?
What would that look like?
In the same way as we can’t simply overlay W.E.I.R.D. psychology onto Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing, we can’t just simply overlay Indigenous models onto those raised in WEIRD cultures. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have rich interwoven narratives around spirituality (e.g. the Dreaming) that we can’t just import into western models of psychology.
But we can use our growing knowledge of other perspectives on wellbeing to shift our thinking about what kinds of activities and actions might yield wellbeing benefits. I tried this myself, using the diagram above to contemplate potential wellbeing activities that don’t exist in my existing self-care guides (or appear only in passing). Here is what I came up with.
I know a number of people who have invested significant time and effort in studying and documenting their family history. Drawing on official records, historical records, genetic analysis, interviews and family stories to build a family tree and better understand where they come from. There are TV shows based on the concept. Studying one’s family history can provide context to one’s life and experiences, insights into family practices and a sense of historical belonging.
Assuming leadership roles within family
All families have rituals. Often those rituals are managed by one or more specific people within the family. Someone might generally be responsible for bringing everyone together during the holiday season. Another person might assume responsibility for keeping lines of communication open between different parts of the family.
Do you have a specific role within your family? If not, could you discover one? If you do, have you thought about how you could enhance your performance of that role? Could you embrace it more fully? Could you do it better?
Reading and consuming spiritual texts
I can’t really tell you where to start your spiritual journey. I am not sure how to even start mine. But I do know that I am now much more open to the idea of exploring what it means to connect to something beyond the machinations of everyday life. I’m curious about how others understand our role and purpose here on Earth and what their connection to a higher power/purpose is. Perhaps a good starting point is a friend or relative who has a strong sense of spirituality or faith. How did they start that process for themselves?
Finding and nurturing places
I live in a unit and have a small garden area. I’ve spent time nurturing and looking after that garden space and consider it my little part of the world for which I have responsibility to maintain. I know the plants and the birds and the bugs, where they live etc. My work in that garden is therefore a mix of time in nature, of fulfilling a responsibility, and caring for the earth.
Do you have a space that brings you happiness, but also requires you to look after it? If you don’t have an individual space, would you consider getting involved with a community garden or volunteering at a national park or botanic garden? Keep in mind, it might not be a garden, it might just be a space that you take responsibility for keeping at its best – a room, a gallery, a shed.
Volunteering with community organisations and gradually taking on leadership roles
Volunteering and leadership are big topics in the transition to work world. Get involved with the team at Horizon Awards, if you are interested in the skills needed for your career.
Why are those such big topics? I think its because volunteering and leadership roles fulfill a number of critical psychological needs that we have. They connect us with other people (wider community). They expand our perspective. They help us feel more competent. They give us a sense of control. They give us a sense of purpose. They give us a ‘mission’ to carry out. They help us feel trusted and to trust others.
One of the real strengths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander models of wellbeing is this focus on the role of the individual within the larger community. If you don’t necessarily have a large extended family in which to adopt such roles, then volunteering helps you adopt a role within the broader community in which you live.
Joining communities around your topics of interest (community) and contributing to knowledge and object creation in those communities
Object creation (art, craft, furniture, music, stories) plays an important (often central) role in the transfer of knowledge and story through generations as well as the decoration and enhancements of the spaces in which we exist.
Are you a creative individual? Do you draw, write, play music? If so, have you found outlets for sharing your work, learning and collaborating with others, contributing to bigger projects? Have you found and joined communities of people doing similar activities?
I’m not suggesting you have to if you are comfortable being creative in your own space, but it might be a way to enhance the benefits you get from expressing your creativity and provide avenues for your creative outputs to contribute to a wider community.
Some final words
I’m going to continue to try and learn more about how wellbeing is constructed in different cultures.
I’ll also continue to try and extract ideas for enhancing wellbeing from that new knowledge.
I think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives on social and emotional wellbeing have several rich strands to explore. Whilst I am mindful that taking those ideas out of context may result in the loss of the true underlying message, I think it is important to attempt this kind of work if you want (as I do) to have an understanding of wellbeing that can speak across different cultures, and not be restricted to the W.E.I.R.D. one that I grew up and trained in.