As a psychologist, I have worked with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Families, particularly those troubled by issues that affect their health and wellbeing.
These include mental health issues, respiratory problems, and diabetes.
Mental Health Issues
Community surveys of the ATSI population have found differing prevalence rates of mood disorder. For example, Mornington Island in Queensland reported 2.5% prevalence, while Burke in NSW found 6% and Kimberley in Western Australia reported 1%; overall, prevalence rates for anxiety within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community is low at 1% (14).
It has been suggested this low prevalence of anxiety may be due to a number of protective mechanisms in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, such as their strong social bond with the community and their ability to express feelings (18).
Likewise, prevalence rates for schizophrenia are very low, at 0.46% in central Australia (18).
Issues such as overcrowded housing, low education levels and income, and unemployment, provide a substantive environment for the emergence of mental illness. Surveys have shown that Aboriginal people over 18 years old are twice as likely to report being victims of violence as other Australians (AIHW, 2014).
Additionally, in 2004-2005 the rate of child protection notifications to the welfare authorities was 24 per 1000 for Aboriginal children, compared with 7 per 1000 for other Australian children (AIHW, 2014).
Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are the most commonly experienced chronic respiratory diseases, marked by recurring episodes of wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath due to narrowing of the airways and airflow obstruction (13).
While it can be difficult to distinguish between asthma and COPD symptoms, those with COPD continue to lose lung function despite being medicated, which is not common in asthma sufferers (3). Adult urbanised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were 1.5 times more likely to report suffering asthma, than other Australian adults (3).
Common environmental risk factors for respiratory diseases include vigorous exercise, viral antigens, allergens, tobacco smoke, obesity, housing quality, food chemicals and medications (13). Cigarette smoking has been found to be more common among people with asthma than those without, although it is not clear whether this is the lone cause of the disease (21).
Two out of five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 15 and over (41%) were daily smokers in 2012-2013, which is more than twice the prevalence of smokers in the non-indigenous population.
Obesity has been shown to be a risk factor for the development of asthma. Studies show overweight girls without asthma at 7 years of age, were three times more likely to have developed asthma at 32 years of age, compared with normal weight 7 year olds (7).
Additionally, living in damp and mouldy homes has been shown to increase the risk of developing asthma by 30-50% (3).
These risk factors may explain the greater prevalence of asthma in the ATSI population, who frequently live in substandard dwellings, have higher obesity and smoking rates (7).
Diabetes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Families
Diabetes comes in three forms: type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes (26).
The disease occurs when the pancreas does not produce sufficient insulin, or does not respond to the insulin produced by the body. Insulin is a hormone responsible for the regulation of blood sugar.
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition that is normally diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, requiring daily administration of insulin to compensate for low levels of insulin production by the body.
Type 2 diabetes is generally diagnosed in adulthood, and is associated with an ineffective response to insulin produced by the body. It has been linked to excess body weight and inactive lifestyle.
Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy, where high blood glucose is detected.
Symptoms of diabetes include frequent urination, constant thirst, and constant hunger.
Longer term symptoms include nerve and blood vessel damage, occurring when the disease is not controlled, putting the person at risk of limb amputation, blindness, kidney failure, heart disease, or stroke (26).
In 2004-2005, 3 times as many Aboriginal people were reported to have diabetes compared with non-indigenous Australians (AIWC, 2006). Hospitalisation rates for Aboriginal people with diabetes are 6 times higher than for other Australians (AHMAC, 2006).
If you or a member of your family is experiencing symptoms matching these conditions, the whole family can be impacted. A psychologist experienced in this area can assist with methods to support the health and wellbeing of the whole family.
Author: Cassandra Gist, BPsych (Hons), MPsych, MAPS.
Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist has a Masters in Health Psychology, and is able to treat clients aged from two years old right through to adulthood. She is experienced in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as well as children and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist, try Online Booking – Loganholme. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
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