One of the key additions to the 2023–2027 VCE psychology study design is the focus on First Nations peoples’ ways of doing, being and knowing. Students are expected to understand the similarities and differences between Western conceptualisations of psychology and Indigenous psychology.
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Why is it important to consider Indigenous perspectives when studying psychology?
Please note that whilst the information provided here is not directly examinable, it provides useful context for understanding Indigenous approaches to psychology.
In the past, psychology has been complicit in colonisation and has been dominated by discourses that have worked to devalue Indigenous peoples. For instance, the theory of social Darwinism incorrectly described Indigenous peoples as being in the early developmental stages, perpetuating a racist agenda that viewed Indigenous peoples as biologically inferior to European people. This notion was then used to justify practises of assimilation and oppression, including the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities that culminated in the Stolen Generations.
Moreover, much of the research conducted on Indigenous peoples was unethical. Indigenous peoples were often treated as specimens to be studied, dehumanised and devalued. Informed consent was rarely obtained and beneficence was not upheld, as Indigenous communities were often negatively impacted by research procedures and findings.
Another key issue is the misdiagnosis of Indigenous peoples, due to psychologists’ application of Western frameworks of mental health to Indigenous clients. In an effort to resolve this issue, Indigenous frameworks of mental health are now considered by psychologists when working with Indigenous clients. One such framework is Social and Emotional Wellbeing, which will be discussed in more detail later.
Suggested Activity: To test your knowledge, research the application of Porteus’ maze tests to Indigenous Australians. Identify which ethical guidelines were violated by these studies and propose ways in which they could be altered to be more ethically sound.
Referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:
Respectful language is important when discussing Indigenous issues, especially Australia’s history of deliberately using offensive language towards Indigenous peoples. Below are some of the ways in which you can refer to Indigenous Australians:
- First Australians, First Nations or First Peoples: Refers to Indigenous people of Australia. These terms have become widely used in recent years.
- Indigenous: Refers to First Peoples of any country. Respectful use requires a capital I.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: This term recognises that the Australian Indigenous population includes Aboriginal People, Torres Strait Islander People, and people who have both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. Avoid abbreviating this term to “ATSI”, as this is sometimes considered lazy and disrespectful.
- Aboriginal: Refers to someone who is of Aboriginal descent, identifies as being Aboriginal and is accepted as such by their Aboriginal community. Note that the term ‘First Nations’ is more common, as the term Aboriginal is sometimes used disrespectfully.
Note: Use the plural form of nouns to show recognition that there are many different Indigenous groups in Australia (e.g., Indigenous peoples, cultures, and communities).
Connection to Country:
Many Indigenous cultures feel a strong sense of connection to the land and waters around them. To them, the environment does not just sustain life, but it is also thought of as being alive and in a relationship with people. Indigenous peoples’ connection to Country is essential to their identity. Indeed, harming the land or removing Indigenous people from Country may have substantial negative impacts on the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples.
Suggested Activity: The connection Indigenous peoples feel to Country can sometimes be a difficult concept for non-Indigenous people to grasp. To check your understanding, read more about connection to Country ( https://experience.welcometocountry.com/blogs/learning/connection-to-country) and define the concept in your own words.
Note: Capitalise the C when referring to Country.
The 8 Ways Framework:
As part of Unit 3 AOS 2, students are expected to understand an Indigenous framework for learning, titled 8 Ways. As described by VCAA, it is important to understand “approaches to learning that situate the learner within a system, as illustrated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing where learning is viewed as being embedded in relationships where the learner is part of a multimodal system of knowledge patterned on Country.”
The 8 ways framework focuses on ‘how’ learning is achieved, rather than ‘what’ is learnt. It consists of eight interconnected processes that are used in conjunction with one another during the process of learning. These processes and the links between them are illustrated below.
As mentioned above, eight processes are used during learning. These are:
- Story Sharing: Learning is approached through the sharing of narratives and stories. This process is often referred to as yarning. For example, an elder may share a personal story with the young people in their community.
- Learning Maps: A deliberate visual pathway or plan is drawn for learners to follow. For example, a map could be drawn to assist a learner in understanding their connection with their environment.
- Non-verbal: Intra-personal and kinaesthetic skills are applied to prompt thinking and learning. For example, dance, facial expressions, and gestures can be used to communicate meaning.
- Symbols and Images: Symbolic images can be used to understand concepts and content. For example, a symbol may be drawn to represent a certain place.
- Land Links: The content being learnt is linked to local land and place. For example, ancestral and personal relationships with place are drawn upon during the learning process.
- Non-linear: Learners think laterally or combine systems. For example, learning can be completed in any order that suits the situation.
- Deconstruct/Reconstruct: Modelling and scaffolding enables learners to look at the whole process of a concept before looking at parts in detail. For example, a learner may watch an entire process before attempting to reproduce a small element of it.
- Community Links: This involves centring local viewpoints and applying learning for community benefit. For example, learners may focus on gaining knowledge and skills that will benefit their community.
Suggested Activity: Read more about the 8 Ways Framework ( https://www.8ways.online/about) and practise applying each of the eight ways of learning to a concept/skill of your choice.
Also in relation to Unit 3 AOS 2, students should understand “the use of mnemonics (acronyms, acrostics and the method of loci) by written cultures to increase the encoding, storage and retrieval of information as compared with the use of mnemonics such as sung narrative used by oral cultures, including Aboriginal peoples’ use of songlines.”
Songlines are sung narratives about the landscape that enable the places involved in Dreaming to be known and remembered. Here, the word Dreaming refers to non-linear stories and beliefs about creation. Songlines are believed to be the routes taken by creator spirits, or ancestral beings, during the Dreamtime (i.e., the period when the world was created). The songs and stories associated with such paths are passed down from generation to generation through oral traditions. For example, songlines mark sacred sites, water sources, and other significant landmarks. Hence, they can be used to navigate the land, perform cultural rituals, and teach young people about their connection to Country.
Suggested Activity: Read more about songlines ( https://deadlystory.com/page/culture/Life_Lore/Songlines). Compare and contrast other approaches to learning (e.g., method of loci, acronyms and acrostics) with Indigenous peoples’ use of songlines.
Cultural Determinants of Mental Wellbeing:
In Unit 4 AOS 2, students must understand “cultural determinants, including cultural continuity and self-determination, as integral for the maintenance of wellbeing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
The cultural determinants of wellbeing take a strengths-based perspective, which acknowledges the resilience of Indigenous peoples and suggests that connections to culture and Country can improve the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples. This approach also takes a holistic view of health, viewing health as more than just mental and physical wellbeing, but rather as also incorporating social, emotional, spiritual and cultural wellbeing.
Cultural continuity is the ability to preserve a culture and its traditions. Indeed, strengthening one’s cultural identity can protect individuals against stress and trauma. Importantly, Indigenous peoples have not always been able to practise their culture, which has harmed their sense of cultural continuity.
Self-determination is the right of Indigenous peoples and communities to make decisions on issues impacting their lives. In the past, Indigenous people have been denied the right to self-determination and have been unable to make their own decisions. The strengthening of one’s self determination can improve their wellbeing. To achieve this, governments and organisations may uplift Indigenous cultures and voices, address racism and improve cultural safety, and transfer decision-making power to communities.
Social and Emotional Wellbeing:
In Unit 4 AOS 2, students learn about “social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB), as a multidimensional and holistic framework for wellbeing that encapsulates all elements of being (body, mind and emotions, family and kinship, community, culture, country, spirituality and ancestors) for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
Social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) is a framework that reflects Indigenous peoples’ holistic and collectivist understanding of factors that contribute to wellbeing. In this model, an individual is situated within layers of community, kinship, and context. Contextual factors that may influence their wellbeing are considered, including historical, political, social and cultural determinants. Crucially, the model posits that when the harmony of these determinants is disrupted, poor wellbeing may ensue. For instance, the model recognises that experiences of trauma and social disadvantage associated with colonisation negatively impact Indigenous peoples’ wellbeing. Overall, whilst there are shared factors between Western models of mental health and SEWB, the SEWB framework indicates that there are additional symptoms and underlying factors that influence the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples.
As shown in the diagram above, seven domains of wellbeing are included in the model. These do not occur in isolation, but affect SEWB concurrently and cumulatively. The domains are:
- Connection to body and behaviours: Refers to one’s physical health. For example, being able to physically participate in everyday life.
- Connection to mind and emotions: Refers to one’s mental health. For example, being able to manage one’s thoughts and feelings.
- Connection to family and kinship: Refers to one’s connection to the family. For example, having a stable family relationship.
- Connection to community: Refers to one’s relationship with their community. For example, the support one receives from their community.
- Connection to culture: Refers to one’s engagement in cultural practices. For example, attending cultural events.
- Connection to Country and land: Refers to one’s relationship with the lands and waters around them. For example, spending time on Country.
- Connection to spirituality and Ancestors: Refers to one’s engagement with spiritual practices. For example, attending spiritual ceremonies.
Suggested activity: Read more about the SEWB framework ( https://timhwb.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/SEWB-fact-sheet.pdf). Imagine that you are a psychologist working with an Indigenous woman who has reported low mood. Referring to the SEWB framework, describe the factors that you would take into account to understand her wellbeing. Try to explain and apply each of the seven domains of wellbeing in your response.
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