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Introduction: The purpose of this paper is to draw on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous) perspectives, theoretical understandings, and available evidence to answer questions about what is required to effectively address Indigenous people’s mental health and social and emotional wellbeing.

Social and emotional wellbeing is a multifaceted concept. Although the term is often used to describe issues of ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’, it has a broader scope in that Indigenous culture takes a holistic view of health. It recognises the importance of connection to land, culture, spirituality, ancestry, family and community, how these connections have been shaped across generations, and the processes by which they affect individual wellbeing. It is a whole-of-life view, and it includes the interdependent relationships between families, communities, land, sea and spirit and the cyclical concept of life–death–life. Importantly, these concepts and understandings of maintaining and restoring health and social and emotional wellbeing differ markedly to those in many non-Indigenous-specific (or mainstream) programs that tend to emphasise an individual’s behavioural and emotional strengths and ability to adapt and cope with the challenges of life.

This paper explores the central question of ‘what are culturally appropriate mental health and social and emotional wellbeing programs and services for Indigenous people, and how are these best delivered?’. It identifies Indigenous perspectives of what is required for service provision and program delivery that align with Indigenous beliefs, values, needs and priorities. It explores the evidence and consensus around the principles of best practice in Indigenous mental health programs and services. It discusses these principles of best practice with examples of programs and research that show how these values and perspectives can be achieved in program design and delivery.

This paper seeks to provide an evidence-based, theoretically coherent discussion of the factors that influence the effective development, implementation and outcomes of initiatives to address Indigenous mental health and wellbeing issues. It seeks to assess whether the current investment in Indigenous people’s mental health is aligned with available evidence on what works. To this end, the paper reviews Australian literature and government health, mental health and social and emotional wellbeing policies and programs. The scope of programs and their criteria for inclusion in this paper are informed by the Key Result Area 4, Social and Emotional Wellbeing objectives, within the National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health 2003–13: Australian Government Implementation Plan 2007–2013.

This paper acknowledges the holistic nature of health, mental health and wellbeing, and the effects of Australia’s colonial history and legacy on the contemporary state of Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing. It recognises that there is a complex relationship between social and emotional wellbeing, harmful substance misuse, suicide, and a range of social and economic factors. Although this paper encompasses the broad priorities identified within the key Indigenous mental health policies and frameworks, it does not provide a detailed discussion of programs and resources that, although relevant here, are covered in a number of existing Closing the Gap Clearinghouse resource sheets and issues papers (see Appendix 1). These interweavings and overlaps are not surprising given the complexity and interconnectedness of the issues and determinants that are being addressed to strengthen Indigenous mental health and wellbeing.

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