Promising Practice Examples


The first national initiatives to recognise and address Indigenous concepts of social and emotional wellbeing were the Emotional and Social Wellbeing (Mental Health) Action Plans of 1996-1997 and 1999-2000. These were developed by the Australian Government's Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Services (now OATSIH) in response to the Ways Forward Report (1995) . The Action Plan resourced Indigenous organisations to develop new, holistic models of counselling which addressed social and emotional wellbeing issues. 

Many of the most promising Indigenous-specific social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) counselling models were established more than ten years ago under this Action Plan. At this time, there was a movement towards acknowledging Indigenous models of health and wellbeing in service delivery. Innovative Indigenous models of SEWB counselling developed during this period have persisted, many without secure funding, in response to sustained demand from Aboriginal people. 

The Help-Seeking Project showed that Indigenous-led innovations usually occur in response to community needs. Such needs might include poor quality support and lack of access to mainstream services, or crises arising from suicide, family violence or other distressing circumstances.

Indigenous-led Innovations

Indigenous-led innovations are seen as culturally appropriate because they generally incorporate the significance of the extended family and the nature and importance of spirituality in their design. Thus, they are more likely to be perceived as ‘holistic' by clients and consumers. Because Indigenous-led programs adhere to community and cultural protocols, they gain community support more readily.

Often, these innovations start off as short-term projects with limited funding. However, because they have grown out of a real need identified within the community, many initiatives have become established parts of community health services. Some have even created a chain of outcomes by responding to requests from other Indigenous communities. In some instances, the resources developed during a program have lived on as stand-alone resources when the funding for the initial project has run out.

Non-Indigenous Innovations

Non-Indigenous innovations often try to adapt mainstream services to suit Indigenous populations and communities. There are many examples of positive practices led by non-Indigenous organisations. The success of these innovations relies on collaboration, partnership and trust.

The development of promising practice principles for social and emotional wellbeing and mental health services

There is a need for programs and services to address social and emotional wellbeing and mental health issues in many Indigenous communities. Despite high levels of ongoing distress, many communities do not have access to services that deal with issues of importance to Indigenous people, such as trauma, grief and loss, abuse, stolen generations, identity issues, family violence and suicide. If left unresolved, these issues put communities at risk of further distress and harm through violence and other trauma-related behaviours such as substance use. If such issues are confronted or dealt with in a culturally inappropriate way, well-meaning service providers can unwittingly do more harm than good.

The promising practice principles that follow were identified by researchers during the Indigenous Help-Seeking Project. Further on, a selection of promising practice examples illustrates how each of these principles can be applied in practice.

‘Promising' rather than ‘best' practice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma noted in his Social Justice Report 2007 that the concept of ‘best practice' requires services to be ‘replicable, transferable and adaptable'. However he went on to point out that the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and communities therefore prevents the identification of programs as ‘best practice', since this assumes it is possible to ‘transplant it to another community and then just expect it to work' (p8).

Advocates of culturally competent mental health care have also suggested that an over-emphasis on ‘evidence-based practice' can decrease the attention paid to cultural variations in service delivery. This is particularly important in Australia where ‘social and emotional wellbeing' should be seen as a cultural concept specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that varies between language groups and within some communities.

For this reason, we use a more tentative concept, ‘promising practice', which still allows strengths to be recognised and provides an opportunity to learn about successful practices in particular settings.