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Learn from the world’s oldest psychologies of flourishing

Introduction by Croakey: Indigenous philosophies of collective, relational, eco-centric flourishing have evolved over tens of thousands of years, but continue to be marginalised and undermined by dominant Western psychology, write Professor Pat Dudgeon, Dr Abigail Bray and Professor Roz Walker in a new publication in Nature Reviews Psychology.

In a summary of the article below, they outline an urgent need to decolonise Western psychology approaches, which can support and mask structural violence against Indigenous people, who experience substantially higher rates of suicide, self-harm, poor mental health, transgenerational grief, loss and trauma, and chronic illnesses than non-Indigenous populations.

Insights from Indigenous psychology can also fundamentally broaden narrow Western concepts of flourishing, to support social and emotional wellbeing and help to address the interconnected challenges of the modern world, such as climate change, economic crises, and loss of global biodiversity, they say.


Pat Dudgeon, Abigail Bray and Roz Walker write:

Indigenous psychology draws on the oldest continuing knowledge systems but remains largely ignored by dominant Western psychological theories and practices. This exclusion results in ongoing negative effects on Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing and requires urgent decolonisation efforts.

The dominant Western approach to psychology is premised on the cultural frame of individualism, which decontextualises individuals and overestimates self-agency. This individualistic approach risks pathologising victims of injustice and diagnosing the human cost of broader social ills as individual deficits.

Historically, the Western cultural frame has also supported ‘epistemic violence’ or the marginalisation, suppression and extinction of Indigenous psychologies and knowledge systems.

Western concepts of flourishing tend to focus on positive emotion, engagement, meaningful accomplishment, and psychological and social functioning for wellbeing. Colonial discourses of scientific positivism, neoliberal individualistic pathology, and corporatism underscore these theories and practices.

Western psychology lacks the critical role of kinship and collective wellbeing and “the interplay of spirituality, well-being and nature” — described by Ryff, Boylan and Kirsch in Measuring Well-being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences and the Humanities — that are core to Indigenous psychologies.

By suppressing Indigenous therapeutic place-based knowledge systems of flourishing, Western psychology can support and mask structural violence against Indigenous people.

There is an urgent need to decolonise these approaches to provide culturally secure and just care to Indigenous peoples, who experience substantially higher rates of suicide, self-harm, poor mental health, transgenerational grief, loss and trauma, and chronic illnesses than non-Indigenous populations.

Decolonisation of psychology requires researchers to learn from the enduring and diverse Indigenous knowledge and healing systems that have traditionally facilitated the flourishing of Indigenous populations. Big foundational questions regarding what makes a life worth living, how to derive collective value, and how people and the planet can coexist in harmony have been central to Indigenous worldviews and community governance for millennia.

These same questions now inform emerging paradigms within contemporary Indigenous Australian psychology, which should be embraced to address ongoing harms to Indigenous individuals.

Indigenous knowledge systems

Indigenous Australian knowledge systems are arguably the oldest continuing psychologies of flourishing on the planet, estimated to be at least 55,000 years old. Indigenous philosophies of collective, relational, eco-centric flourishing evolved over tens of thousands of years.

For Indigenous peoples around the world, land, language and culture are intertwined. In particular, Country is a timeless core of culture that supports meaning-making, purpose, self-esteem and resilience.

To Indigenous peoples, Country is seen as the source and creator of life, and provides kinship, morality and ethics. Thus, caring for the land serves to nurture and protect Indigenous culture and families into the future. These complex Indigenous psychologies of relational flourishing are a foundational component of the collective heritage of humanity and are vital to Indigenous wellbeing.

During the past few decades, Indigenous scholars and psychologists globally have developed innovative paradigms of Indigenous wellbeing as part of a decolonising strategy to support collective, eco-centric flourishing within Indigenous families and communities.

These holistic models of health include social, emotional, spiritual and cultural dimensions as well as physical and mental health and wellbeing.

These paradigms are founded on a worldview that articulates complex cultural laws about harmony between people and planet, collective reciprocity and the responsibility to promote wellbeing, drawing from Indigenous knowledge systems.

Collective, eco-centric approaches challenge human supremacism and recognise that all life forms on Earth, including the complex ecosystem of Mother Earth, have the right to life and justice.

This approach is the golden thread that runs through Indigenous psychologies and philosophies of flourishing, guiding therapeutic knowledge systems about the relationship between one’s inner life and the environment (including the physical environment and the spiritual realm).

Social and emotional wellbeing

The proliferation of Indigenous relational paradigms of flourishing is testimony to the collective strength of Indigenous psychology, cultures, and knowledge systems.

For example, in Australia the culturally grounded paradigm of relational social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) was developed by Indigenous psychologists through collective community-based knowledge transfer with Indigenous communities and Elders (see here and here).

This paradigm emerged from the Indigenous health movement in Australia, including studies that pushed back against the cross-generational impacts of genocidal colonialism that undermine individual, family, and community wellbeing. This paradigm expresses an evolving Indigenous knowledge system of flourishing, guided by wellbeing lore about the collective life-affirming benefits of harmonious kinship with Country.

SEWB describes an Indigenous concept of the relational self, comprised of seven interconnected domains of wellbeing: mind and emotion, body, family, community, culture, Country, and spirituality. These domains are influenced by social, cultural and historical determinants, as well as by individual and collective experiences and expressions.

Research on the benefits to mental health and wellbeing of recognising and supporting these interconnected domains contributes to sophisticated understandings of Indigenous flourishing. There is expanding rigorous Indigenous-led research into the social and cultural determinants of SEWB, guided by the internationally recognised right to self-determine social, economic, knowledge, health, and cultural development.

Facilitating and nurturing Indigenous flourishing requires recognition of Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing; Indigenous assessment tools; strengths-based trauma-informed solutions; and the empowerment of cultural practices and knowledges of collective flourishing.

The SEWB paradigm informs state and national mental health and wellbeing policies and frameworks in Australia, practice guidelines and standards, community-based healing and empowerment programs, and guiding principles of culturally safe psychology. Thus, it has positive effects on communities beyond the individual level.

Decolonising the psychology of flourishing

Indigenous psychologies of wellbeing and flourishing offer epistemological and theoretical innovations that are currently lacking in Western psychology but continue to be marginalised and undermined by dominant Western psychology.

Scholars, theorists, policy makers, and practitioners worldwide need to recognise Indigenous human rights and Indigenous knowledge systems, and to decolonise psychology to implement Indigenous SEWB within policy and health systems.

SEWB presents an opportunity for the field of psychology to learn from the world’s oldest psychologies of flourishing. Insights from Indigenous psychology can help to address the interconnected challenges of the modern world, such as climate change, economic crises, and loss of global biodiversity.

To effectively decolonise, psychologists need to recognise their power and privilege. Furthermore, they must interrogate how social and political systems and ecologies interact with Indigenous experiences and expressions to strengthen or hinder wellbeing and commit to work in culturally safe and trauma-informed ways with Indigenous people.

Professor Pat Dudgeon, Dr Abigail Bray and Professor Roz Walker are from the Transforming Indigenous Mental Health and Wellbeing Research Project at the School of Indigenous Studies, University of Western Australia.

Note re feature image artwork: Beautiful Healing in Wildflower Banksia Country describes a story about the life affirming inter-connections between people, land, oceans, waterways, sky and all living things. The painting began in the Sister Kate’s Home Kid’s Aboriginal Corporation Healing (SKHKAC) Hub, at the second National and World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference held in Perth, Western Australia in 2018. During the conference participants came together in the Healing Hub to collaborate on the triptych which was then respectfully completed by the SKHKAC team. The Sister Kate’s Children’s Home began in 1934 and closed in 1975, and was an institution for Aboriginal children who are now known as the Stolen Generations – where the Home Kids of SKHKAC are planning to build an all accessible Place of Healing on the Bush Block adjacent to the old Home, and will run Back to Country Bush Camps and other cultural healing activities. See report: Wellbeing and Healing Through Connection and Culture, authored by Pat Dudgeon, Abigail Bray, Gracelyn Smallwood, Roz Walker and Tania Dalton.


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