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What can we learn from Indigenous culture about mental health?

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultures, social and emotional wellbeing are considered pivotal to a community’s survival and growth as well as an individuals’ sense of wellbeing. But our modern world has lost this understanding. International mental health adviser, Gregor Henderson asks if Australia can help shift us back to the future.

There is growing acceptance that our modern lives, hallmarked by ‘individualism’ and the pursuit of economic growth and material wealth, are eroding those things that help keep us both mentally and physically well. Global leaders in mental health recently met in Sydney to discuss a range of issues and look for ways of collaborating in tackling significant and growing challenges to wellbeing and mental health in the developed world. They were struck by what is happening here, and there is growing international interest in the focus and investment that is being given to mental health in Australia. The ‘Sydney Conversations’ were hosted by the National Mental Health Commission, who presented their work on an annual National Report Card, which charts the progress being made in improving mental health and the lives of people living with a mental health difficulty across Australia.

The theme chosen for Australia’s (and the world’s first) National Report Card on mental health and suicide prevention struck a chord with the gathered leaders. Launched in November last year ‘A Contributing Life’ recognises that the one in five Australians who will experience mental illness in any year want the same things as everyone else. A contributing life – where they have someone to love, somewhere secure to live, something to do, work, a decent income, something to look forward to and connections to their neighborhoods, culture and community.

Let’s take an area crucial to our wellbeing and mental health – being connected. Having good social relationships are critical to our wellbeing and to preventing physical and mental ill-health and supporting recovery. Research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and colleagues from the US showed that people with stronger social relationships have a 50% increased likelihood of avoiding a premature death than those with poor social relationships. This shows that being socially connected is as powerful in living a long and healthy life as giving up smoking and stopping harmful drinking.

Another area that affects our mental health and wellbeing is work. Australia has a good employment rate compared to other OECD countries, but people in Australia work longer hours than most. This has an effect on work life balance and reduces the time people spend with their families and friends. Leaving less time to connect and build the relationships we need, and as importantly, less time to develop new relationships.

One in five workers in Australia takes a day off every month due to unrealistic workloads and a lack of work/life balance (ABS, (Australian Social Trends, June 2011) , and over three days a year are lost through stress at work (Medibank Private (2008) The Cost of Workplace Stress in Australia p6). Poor mental health is estimated to cost the Australian economy and businesses well over $6.5billion a year. This is all damaging our individual and collective wellbeing.

For people with mental health problems, whilst more are in work, there are still many people who want to work but can’t find jobs. But again in the Sydney Conversations, I heard about good work taking place in Australia that is making a difference. This spans recovery and employment programmes across the NGO sector to the work of large organisations and workplaces that are starting to proactively tackle mental health in the workplace and are beginning to see real benefits. Employers, large or small who support good mental health will be rewarded with reduced absenteeism, increased retention, productivity and workplace morale and wellbeing. One UK study showed that for every $1 invested in workplace mental health, the return on investment was $30.

From what I heard in Sydney, I am optimistic that Australia is helping to lead a shift in thinking and acting. Not only are you giving focus and leadership across the political spectrum to mental health, you are taking action and making a difference. There is every reason to believe that you can help lead the way in the shift we need to make globally to wellbeing and improving mental health by working on what really matters to people’s lives collectively and individually. Sure money and material goods help, but not as much as we may have been led to believe. Our mental health, our social and emotional wellbeing matter more. On this, it looks like the First Australians are right.

Mr Gregor Henderson is an international adviser on mental health and wellbeing. Mr Henderson is currently advising the UK Government on public mental health and wellbeing (including working with the UK Cabinet Office on wellbeing in policy) and recently facilitated a two day meeting of International and National Mental Health Commissioners in Sydney, hosted by the National Mental Health Commission.

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