Cultural, social and emotional wellbeing programs with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system

Chief Investigator: Dr Ee Pin Chang

Co-investigators: Prof Pat Dudgeon (Bardi), Dr Joan Chan, Dr Jemma Collova

Community co-researchers: Angela Ryder (Noongar), Carolyn Mascall, Gillian King (Noongar)

Collaborators: Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, Centacare Kimberley, Langford Aboriginal Association, Danila Dilba Health Service

With assistance and support from the Western Australian Department of Justice

Evidence gap 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the longest continuing cultures in the world with over 65,000 years. Suicide was not known prior to colonisation (Hunter & Milroy, 2006). Colonisation has contributed to ongoing systemic discrimination and disadvantages including an over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system.

Despite making up 3% of Western Australia’s population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people account for 42% of Western Australia’s prison population (ABS, 2024a, 2024b). This over-representation was highlighted in the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody (Commonwealth of Australia, 1991), and more recently, the Pathways to Justice report (Australian Law Reform Commission, 2017). The Pathways to Justice report suggested that prison programs that promote connection to culture and strengthen family relationships may address the high recidivism rates; it recommended trauma-informed and culturally appropriate prison programs that are developed with, and delivered by, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women (rec. 11-1). Aboriginal women are one of the fastest growing population groups in the Australian prison system (Calma, 2004), where 78% of Aboriginal female prisoners, compared to 30% of non-Aboriginal female prisoners, had a prior imprisonment (ABS, 2024a). 

Proposed research program and outcomes

The Cultural, Social and Emotional Wellbeing (CSEWB) Program and the Kimberley Empowerment, Healing and Leadership Program (KEHLP) are trauma and culturally informed programs, co-developed with Aboriginal psychologists and community co-researchers, based on the Social and Emotional Wellbeing (SEWB) model (Gee et al., 2014).

Importantly, the principles underlying these programs align with factors highlighted in the Solutions that work: what the evidence and our people tell us, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP) report (Dudgeon et al., 2016).

The SEWB model is a strengths-based and holistic health framework that reflects the dynamic interrelationships between the self, the domains of wellbeing and the historical, political, cultural and social determinants of health, as experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These programs aim to enhance social and emotional wellbeing and resilience as a suicide prevention strategy, by restoring healthy connections to the seven domains of the SEWB model.