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Research shows Indigenous Australians more likely to suffer from emotional distress

Belinda Davison
Menzies School of Health Research Dr Belinda Davison found Indigenous adults living in remote and urban areas experienced an average of six stressful events during their lives

Indigenous Australians are six times more likely to experience stressful events in their lives compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, new research from a Charles Darwin University PhD graduate has found. 

Menzies School of Health Research Dr Belinda Davison undertook the 18-month study, which investigated “Chronic Stress Exposure and Emotional Wellbeing in Australian Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Young Adults”.

Dr Davison found Indigenous adults living in remote and urban areas had experienced an average of six stressful events during their lives, compared to non-Indigenous adults who suffered from just one event. 

“Our Indigenous cohort whether they were in Darwin or in a remote community were much more likely to experience stressful events in their lives,” Dr Davison said.  

“A high number of stressful events significantly increased their risk of emotional distress.”  

Dr Davison measured the stress hormone cortisol in participants’ hair and fingernails as part of her research.   

“Indigenous adults who experienced multiple stressful events had lower cortisol levels in their hair and fingernails,” she said.  

“A possible explanation could be that the ongoing stress has resulted in a state of exhaustion being reached, leaving them vulnerable to emotional distress.”

Common stressful events suffered by the Northern Territory’s Indigenous population included the death of a loved one, health issues, trouble with the police, drug and alcohol issues, community unrest and violence in the community. 

The study is part of a wider research project ongoing for the past 30 years, with Dr Davison involved as a project manager for the past 13 years. During this time, she has visited more than 30 remote communities across the Top End, as well as urban settings. 

Dr Davison said the research, which is primarily based on biomarkers and questionnaires, was designed to identify the impact a high stress environment has on the emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. 

“It will help determine what factors contribute to their stress levels, health and wellbeing,” she said. 

“The outcomes could inform policy makers and have a positive effect on people’s lives.”