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InPsych 2015 | Vol 37

Cover feature : Psychologist self-care

The importance of self-care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists

The psychology profession needs to retain and grow the number of Indigenous psychologists, which means that self-care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists has additional significance. It is estimated that there are 80 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander registered psychologists in Australia. To obtain proportional parity with the number of non-Indigenous psychologists, the target needs to be about 640 psychologists (AIPA, 2015). Increasing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists will be invaluable in providing better access to services and to improve social and emotional wellbeing for Indigenous people (Cameron & Robinson, 2014). Indeed the profession recognises this need and it is one of the main aims of the Australian Indigenous Psychology Education Project (AIPEP, 2015) and the APS Reconciliation Action Plan (2011). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves also regard it as vital that there are more Indigenous people working in psychology and mental health ( The Elders Report, 2014). There has been a slow increase and it is hoped this trend continues.

Not only should we be concerned with implementing strategies to increase Indigenous participation in courses and the cultural competence of non-Indigenous psychologists (Hovane, Dalton (Jones) & Smith, 2014) but also, and most importantly, supporting the current cohort through encouraging self-care strategies. To do this, it is essential that there is appropriate content in psychology courses and ongoing professional development as well as recognition and support for culturally-competent psychologists. Supporting Indigenous psychologists and students to complete studies and commence work is essential. Equally, non-Indigenous psychologists undertaking further training with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to increase their cultural knowledge and responsiveness require continued support.

Stressors for Indigenous psychologists

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists often talk about the great satisfaction they get from working with people from their community. These psychologists also talk of how important it is to provide cultural contexts and information to other health practitioners and how this provides meaning to their work. However, the work that psychologists do is sometimes performed in complex and challenging contexts. There is a need to balance caring for others with caring for themselves (Wise, Hersh & Gibson, 2012). While there are many psychological benefits gained from working with people, there can be times where the stressors may be taxing (Bride, Radey & Figley, 2007; Di Benedetto & Swadling, 2014).

The cost of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists not caring for themselves may lead to burnout and the loss of Indigenous practitioners. There are stressors that are unique to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists, including:

  • Racism (like other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples).
  • Working in environments that do not respect cultural difference, which can be disempowering for practitioners as much as for Indigenous clients and may impact on cultural safety within the workplace.
  • Obligations to family, local and national communities. Most Indigenous psychologists maintain their obligations, no matter where they are located. Given that extended families constitute typical Indigenous families, caring for others can be challenging.
  • While there have been high demands and acknowledgement of the skills of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists, there may also be times when the cultural knowledge skills are not acknowledged, which can impact on cultural safety at work.

Self-care for Indigenous psychologists

Self-care can have different meanings for different people and professions, however, it is essentially treating yourself with care to ensure that you cope with events in your life, alongside ensuring that you are able to provide quality work as a psychologist (Wise, Hersh & Gibson, 2012). Some Aboriginal psychologists may need to reconsider and reframe this term, as it may appear to be an individualistic term and not from a collectivist approach. While we need to do things at an individual level there are also other activities that are important to us. Family (including our kinship networks) is important and sometimes we might need time-out for ourselves or at other times we might need to reconnect and strengthen our place in our families and communities.

Reconnecting with our community, going back to our country and practising our cultures in whatever form that might be is also important to our self-care and grounds us as Indigenous professionals. Strong social and emotional wellbeing maintains our wellbeing through connections to body, mind and emotions, spirituality, land, community, families and culture. This is therefore the framework through which Indigenous psychologists retain wellness. In addition, having organisations such as AIPA assists with cultural safety, empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists to contribute to the psychology knowledge base where their views are shared, their contributions are invited, and they are respected, encouraged and gain collective support from colleagues throughout the nation. n

The author can be contacted at tanja23@bigpond.com. Professor Pat Dudgeon FAPS, Tania Dalton (Jones) and Kelleigh Ryan Assoc MAPS also contributed to this article.


  • Australian Indigenous Psychology Association. (2015). AIPA website. Retrieved from www.indigenouspsychology.com.au
  • Australian Indigenous Psychology Education Project. (2015). Aims and Objectives. Retrieved from AIPEP
  • Australian Psychological Society. (2011). The APS Reconciliation Action Plan 2011-2014. Retrieved from RAP-Booklet_Final_WEB.pdf
  • Bride, B., Radey, M., & Figley, M. (2007). Measuring compassion fatigue. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35(3), 155–163. Doi: 10.1007/s10615-007-0091-7
  • Cameron, S., & Robinson, K. (2014). The experiences of Indigenous psychologists at university. Australian Psychologist, 49(1),54–62. Doi: 10.1111/ap.12036.
  • Di Benedetto, M., & Swadling, M. (2014) Burnout in Australian psychologists: Correlations with work-setting, mindfulness and self-care behaviours. Psychology, Health and Medicine, 19(6), 705-715. DOI: 10.1080/13548506.2013.861602
  • Hovane, V., Dalton (Jones), T., Smith, P., (2014). Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice (2nd ed). Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.
  • The Elders’ Report into Preventing Indigenous Self-harm and Youth Suicide. (2014). Retrieved from www.cultureislife.org/
  • Wise, E. H., Hersh, M. A., & Gibson, C. M. (2012). Ethics, self-care and well-being for psychologists: Reenvisioning the stress-distress continuum. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(5), 487-494. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0029446

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on February 2015. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.