Developing better understanding of effective therapeutic practices with Aboriginal clients, in Aboriginal community settings, and with Aboriginal practitioners, across the spectrum of mental health and social and emotional wellbeing outcomes is the goal of Dr Graham Gee.
Falling into research by practical necessity, Dr Graham Gee is passionate about well-being and mental health from an Aboriginal perspective.
“For Aboriginal people there’s such diversity and really interesting connections to land, community, ancestry and spirituality that interface with mental health. Well-being is often seen much more in a collective space—intimate connections to multiple care-givers and kinship figures around you,” he said.
“The resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is undeniable.”
Surveys have found cultural attachment to be associated with higher self-reported health, socio-economic and employment outcomes,1 and with up to 90 per cent of respondents having reported feeling happy either some, most or all of the time.2
These same surveys, however, consistently show that approximately one in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience high to very high levels of psychological distress (31%), 2.5 times higher than other Australians,3 and a rate that has increased rather than decreased since 2004.4
Between 2009-2013 and 2014-2018 suicide rates in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people increased by 17 per cent5 and the most recent national health survey found that 25 per cent of respondents reported having a mental health and/or behavioural condition.6
“These alarming statistics highlight the urgency of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to improve mental health and social and emotional wellbeing,” Dr Gee advised.
An Aboriginal man, also with Chinese and Celtic heritage, from Darwin, Dr Gee started his career as a teacher. During his younger years, working in remote communities in the Northern Territory sparked his interest in Aboriginal experiences and perspectives of mental health, and he saw psychology as a possible career pathway to working with communities.
“I saw lots of differences in the way community spoke about well-being and mental health—around what well-being meant and what distress looked like,” he said.
“There is a huge absence of research in investigating the most effective ways to improve mental health outcomes, such as depression and complex trauma in our communities – and that is something that I feel passionate about.”
Now a clinical psychologist and Senior Research Fellow at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Dr Gee is working with communities to help document and develop more knowledge about safe, effective strategies and therapeutic practices that build resilience and enable healing and recovery from complex trauma—which in his therapeutic work often involved supporting people to overcome multiple or compounding traumatic experiences, such as child abuse or neglect, combined with intergenerational social disadvantage, and historical and cultural losses and injustices associated with colonisation.
“We can’t ignore the compelling statistics linked to disparities in wellbeing and distress, we have to face them head-on, but at the same time it is critical that we draw on strength-based frameworks that focus on resilience and the important things that actually bring people out of those conditions—such as strong support systems, personal strengths development, and stronger connection to culture.” Dr Gee said.
“As the research progresses, we will hopefully begin to understand more about the complex relationships that exist between personal strengths, family and community support, cultural determinants of wellbeing, access to resources and the impact of social structures and systems, and mental health and wellbeing outcomes.”
In the early part of his research career, Dr Gee has been working with different teams to build and evaluate Aboriginal-designed assessment tools.
“We can use these tools, such as the Aboriginal Resilience and Recovery Questionnaire, in research, but we hope that eventually such tools are service, practitioner and client friendly, and can be used to improve the way we support our communities in mental health and social and emotional well-being,” he explained.
In 2019 Dr Gee received the NHMRC Research Excellence Rising Star award, which is awarded to the top-ranked application by an Indigenous researcher in the Early Career Fellowship scheme.
“It was nice to have this research recognised as having value. Even though I received the award, it honestly represents a collective of talented Aboriginal colleagues that have been involved with the research and of course the community members who trusted me and believed in our team’s motivations and aspirations,” he said.
“I’d like to encourage more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to get involved in research and behind community-driven, co-designed research.”
1 Dockery, A. M. (2010). Culture and wellbeing: The case of Indigenous Australians. Social Indicators Research, 99(2), 315-332.
2 Anomie, Jane, B., Drew, N., Elwell, M., FitzGerald, V., Hoareau, J., Potter, C., Poynton, M., Swann, T., & Trzesinski, A. (2020). Overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health status 2019. Retrieved from https://ro.ecu.edu.au/ecuworkspost2013/7899
3 Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey: First Results, Australia, 2012-13 https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/9F3C9BDE98B3C5F1CA257C2F00145721?opendocument
5 Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet. (2020). Summary of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health status 2019. Perth, WA: Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet. Retrieved from healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/summaries