By Dr Susie Burke MAPS. Researcher, APS National Office

Reflections from a workshop held by the College of Counselling Psychologists and the APS Interest Group on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Psychology in Melbourne, November 2006.

In November, I was fortunate to attend an inspiring workshop on working with Indigenous people, co-presented by Wendy Nolan, Senior Lecturer at the University of South Australia, PhD candidate, and Biripi woman of the Kattang Language Nation of NSW, and Carol Moylan, MAPS and PhD candidate, in association with Keith McConnochie.

The workshop was based on the need to have a within culture framework for training mental health professionals (RCIADIC, 1991). This requires: i) knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal cultures, including pre-invasion societies, historical and contemporary experiences, ii) critical reflection on personal values and attitudes and those of the profession, and iii) the development of culturally appropriate skills and strategies. This was obviously a lot to cover in one day, but we made a start!

The first part of the workshop was an introduction to classical Aboriginal societies pre-colonisation, and we learnt about their classificatory system of kinship and moieties, and the rich, diverse, complex Aboriginal Nations that covered the entire continent – each with well-defined boundaries, all-encompassing spiritual beliefs, and complex political, economic, and social systems.

We then looked at the devastating impact of colonisation on Indigenous people throughout Australia, including over 150 years of systematic, government-ordered removal of children from families between 1814 and the late 1970's. The impact and effects of colonisation, loss of connection to land and country, and the Stolen Generations have varied over time and place, but have resulted in trauma, grief and loss for successive generations of Indigenous people. As Wendy concluded, the high rates of mental illness amongst Aboriginal people, plus the present dysfunctional behaviour that occurs within many Indigenous communities, are grounded in unresolved grief associated with multiple layers of trauma spanning many generations.

Strategies for working with Indigenous people

The final part of the workshop explored strategies for working effectively with Indigenous clients. Non-Indigenous psychologists who work with Indigenous people, face particular challenges as a result of our history. According to Wendy, we can be seen as representatives both of the white culture that took away Indigenous people’s land and culture and of the social institutions that took away their children and separated families for over five generations. Consequently, many Indigenous people hold psychologists and psychology in deep mistrust.

Psychologists with years of experience in working with Indigenous people say the first step is understanding the power a white person has as a member of a dominant culture that has oppressed Aboriginal people and continues to do so. Acknowledging this power imbalance, and understanding how it may make it difficult for the Indigenous person to trust and work with you, can be crucial in establishing credibility with Indigenous clients. Asking about the client’s perceptions of psychology, psychologists and mental illness can also help.

Another early task in establishing trust is to acknowledge cultural differences up front. Your client can be invited to identify a community member to provide additional advice, or you can seek cultural consultants through local Aboriginal organisations and communities. Both Wendy and Carol emphasised the importance of working with cultural consultants within the client’s communities, for advice on traditions and customs, ways of communicating and understanding, and the community’s own experience of colonisation and issues of concern. Building relationships with the Indigenous community where you work, being an advocate for social justice and equity, marking important dates and attending special events, are all vitally important ways of demonstrating your genuine interest in understanding and supporting Indigenous people.

Carol Moylan’s research into treating depression in Aboriginal clients emphasises the importance of recognising the different philosophical notions underpinning modern psychotherapy – individualism, materialism, secularism (Howard, 2001) – compared to Aboriginal clients’ world views, grounded in notions of community, spirituality, relatedness and connectedness of all things (Sanson & Dudgeon, 2000). Good mental health is based on the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the whole community. An important task in healing for Indigenous clients, therefore, is to know who they are and where they come from. Both Wendy and Carol talked about the importance of locating yourself in family, community and country, and inviting your client to do the same (ensuring that you understand land and boundaries, language groups, kinship systems etc).

Working with Indigenous clients challenges us to re-examine our preferred paradigms for psychological practice, and invites us to offer a psychotherapy anchored in Aboriginal ontology and epistemology. The therapeutic modalities recommended most often by Aboriginal writers include using narrative, personal stories or anecdotes, open-ended discussion, positive indirect questioning avoiding direct questioning, yarning, and grief and loss therapies. ‘Just being listened to’ is also considered to be very important.

Some excellent resources are available for working effectively with Indigenous clients (particularly Working with Indigenous Australians: A Handbook for Psychologists, by Pat Dudgeon, Darren Garvey and Harry Pickett). Participating in workshops like this one is another valuable way of developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of Indigenous Australians, and the strengths and resources, as well as the burdens, they live with.


Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991). National Report, 4, p. 249.

Howard, A. (2001). Philosophy for counseling and psychotherapy: Pythagoras to post-modernism. New York: Palgrave.

Sanson, A. & Dudgeon P. (2000). Guest editorial: Psychology, Indigenous issues, and reconciliation. Australian Psychologist, 35(2), 79-81.

Useful resources

APS Ethical Guidelines

  • Guidelines for the Provision of psychological services for, and the conduct of psychological research with, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia.

Link to APS Ethical Guidelines (members only)

APS Interest Group

  • APS Interest Group on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Psychology. Additional resources are available in the interest group newsletter (vol 2, issue 1).

Psychology handbook

  • Working with Indigenous Australians: A Handbook for Psychologists.
    Pat Dudgeon, Darren Garvey and Harry Pickett (eds). Gunada Press, Curtin Indigenous Research Centre, Perth, ISBN 1 86342 903 4

Health and mental health websites and e-journals


National Indigenous Events Calendar

  • 26 January – Survival Day (Australia Day)
  • 21 March – Harmony Day
  • 26 May – National Healing day (Sorry Day)
  • 26 May to 3 June – National Reconciliation Week
  • 3 June – Mabo Day
  • 1 July – Coming of the Light Festival (Torres Strait Islands)
  • 1st full week of July – NAIDOC Week
  • 4 August – National Aboriginal and Islander Children’s Day
  • 9 August – International Day of the World’s Indigenous People