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Factors That Influence the Health and Wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia

Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have extensively faced a history of discrimination when it comes to access to basic services. Enhancing access and provision of important and essential services to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has been a great challenge to the Australian government. It is mainly due to economic, social, cultural, environmental and environmental factors that have contributed to the glaring health disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The current paper will expound on factors such as education, housing, racism and employment and their impact on the health and wellbeing of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Education

In the modern day Australia, a large number of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children fall short of the national minimum standards for writing, reading and numerical competence. A smaller fraction of the same population manages to complete Year 12 than students who are not from indigenous backgrounds. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have a generally poorer school retention and literacy rates.

In 2006, the literacy lever for the Indigenous Australian population was considerably lower than that of Australians from different ethnic backgrounds. Limited education and low literacy levels among Aboriginal and Strait Islanders is directly associated with a poor health status and wellbeing because it affects the competence of this population to use and understand health information. The research has proven that education is a significant influence in improving health and wellbeing. For instance, superior education levels are linked to an enhanced comprehension of healthy standards of living in addition to the health care system and its provisions. It can be illustrated by the higher mortality rates witnessed for individuals with a limited number of years of education when it comes to smoking-related diseases. Those who manage to complete their education have the tendency to smoke less, are more energetic and consume less amount of alcohol. These factors are essential in reducing the possibility of chronic diseases in the adult life (Australian Government Department of Health and Aging 2012).

Low knowledge levels or illiteracy among the Indigenous Australian population has led to the creation of a language and communication barrier, making it difficult for them to communicate effectively with health care service providers and health care. According to the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, only 15% of Indigenous Australians are unable to communicate in English with the rate being higher (24%), among those aged 55 years and above (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008).

Health knowledge is essential for people to productively handle their health. An individual’s capacity to make cognizant health-associated choices is governed by their capability to comprehend health information. Such health information pertains to being able to fathom instructions on prescribed medication bottles, physician appointment slips, medical education catalogues or booklets, a physician’s instructions and the capacity to cope with intricate health care systems. It is an addition to being able to understand the reasons for a medical practitioner’s prescribed course of action and medication prescribed to treat, manage or prevent health related complications. The effect is mostly felt when it comes to complying with prescribed treatment or procedures and faithfully taking their medication when prescribed and at the right time including quantity. Therefore, low education proficiency form a barrier to health advancement activities that are based on health education (Australian Government Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2011, p. 17).

Housing

Housing is one of the most common factors affecting the health and wellbeing of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. According to the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), 28% of the Australian Indigenous population aged between 15 years and above lived in homes that had serious construction problems, where, for instance, walls and floors had cracks, plumbing and sewerage system problems or termite damaged wooden infrastructure. In addition to this, for every 10 people, 4 who lived in remote areas resided in houses that had structural problems (Department of Health and Ageing 2012, p. 13).

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Factors associated with poor housing, more specifically congestion, sub-standard construction and lack of proper infrastructure such as proper sewerage systems, a stable power supply and clean piped water have substantial impacts on the health of every individual (Carson, Dunbar, Chenhall & Bailie 2007, p. 16). These factors are linked to various diseases such as skin infections, meningitis, rheumatic fever, respiratory infections and in some instances mental health. In terms of congestion, overcrowding stretches the available resources. It may lead to the malfunctioning or breakdown or inadequacy of resources. It may lead to the transmission of infectious diseases and social stress that may influence an individual’s physical and mental health. The dangers of children being exposed to premature sexual acts, or even abuse represents another disadvantage (Bailie & Wayte 2006, p. 180). Sub-standard construction may lead to the exposure of residents to harmful chemicals that may affect their health due to the use of cheap products during construction. The well-being of residents of such houses is also out at risk as it is possible for them to cave in due to poor construction standards and workmanship. Inadequate infrastructure in terms of water, sewerage systems and electricity is detrimental to the health of individuals living in such conditions.

Lack of water supplies may lead to water borne diseases because people may be forced to look for alternative sources which may be contaminated or the spread of food related illnesses due to improper handling of foodstuff. The access to safe drinking water is indispensable for healthy living. Diseases associated with the consumption of contaminated water include typhoid and diarrhoea. Broken down sewerage systems affect the health of individuals in that they will be forced to live with their human waste. It constitutes the perfect breeding ground for deadly diseases such as Cholera and Hepatitis A among others (Australian Indigenous Health InfoNet 2008).

Therefore, below average housing and inadequate or lack of operational infrastructure poses a threat of bringing about serious health risks. They include indirect effects which pertain to the community or neighbourhood in which houses are located, proximity and access to services and facilities, which in turn affects the broader functioning of the community.

Racism

Racism or racial discrimination refers to an act during which a person encounters prejudice due to their race, skin color or ethnic descent. The act of racism can transpire universal due to dogmas, environments and customs that have a negative effect on the targeted group of individuals. The right to proper healthcare and the freedom from prejudice are enshrined in Australian legislation. However, it is a well-known fact that Indigenous Australians, namely the Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginals, frequently have much poorer health and higher mortality rates as compared to non-Indigenous Australians. This is mainly attributed to the fact that for hundreds of years, the Indigenous peoples of Australia have suffered racism and unparalleled prejudice that has affected their access to basic services provided by the government and private sector. It is accredited to colonialism, historical and modern-day racism.

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The effects of racism on the health and well-being of Indigenous Australians can be observed by their inability to access proper primary and secondary healthcare health from both private and government health service providers. In some cases, the services offered to these communities may be sub-standard in terms of the level of care provided to Australians from other backgrounds. In any given society, racist philosophies or ideals tend to be engrained in the operation of social institutions. It might lead to discrimination against targeted groups. For example, health care can be denied or delayed to Indigenous Australians due to the false perception that they are racially inferior to non-Indigenous Australians. Therefore, this population is forced to forego medical care because of circumstances that are not of their own free will and are beyond their control (Awofeso 2011, p. 4).

A 2009 study by Pascoe and Richman on protracted and minor discrimination on health recognized an intricate relationship, facilitated by variables such as coping methods, discrimination level, stress levels, and identity complexity. However, when weighted by sample size, research findings concluded that the prolonged prejudice has a harmful impact on mental and physical health and well-being of Indigenous Australians- Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders included. Consequently, racism victims may be forced to function in the light of amplified levels of stress and have a more significant tendency to demonstrate harmful behaviour (2009).

Racism can make the affected communities reluctant to seek treatment from health institutions because of the perception that they are unwelcome due to negative stereotypes and the conception of receiving poor services.

Therefore, racism can have an adverse effect on an individual’s health through avenues such as prolonged stress that affects metal health, dangerous health-associated behaviours due to frustration and the lack of access to quality health care services that may be essential in sustaining the lives of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

Employment

Being employed and/or having a steady income has been proven to have a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of any human being. Lack of employment for prolonged periods, the inability to join the labour force and recurrent modifications in an individual’s employment status have been upheld to have adverse consequences on an individual’s health. However, the effect of being part of the labour force on the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is intricate and prone to be influenced by different dynamics as compared to those that affect non-Indigenous Australians.

Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders have high levels of unemployment due to several factors such as location, education and racism. Residents of remotely located areas have too few employment opportunities, which can be explained by the lack of feasible industries and businesses as compared to individuals who reside in developed or urban areas. Lower literacy rates constrain employment opportunities in both distant and accessible regions. It is so because most of white collar job positions are the preserve of the educated. Racial prejudice also denies Indigenous Australians equal access to jobs that are almost readily available to the rest of the population. With regards to the effect on health and well-being of the Indigenous Australian community, the nature of employment and the manner in which employment is encountered by both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders impacts the health benefits they acquire when employed. Temporary, semi-skilled and poorly paying jobs, where workers have limited control over their actions and may face racism and discrimination at work, have been tend to weaken the positive health outcomes of being employed. Unfortunately, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders encounter these factors on a daily basis at their places of employment (Lowry & Moskos 2007, pp. 91-93).

On the other hand, the poor health profile of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders represents a barrier to increasing labour force participation rates among this population. Recent studies have found that the ill health of a family member was an ordinary reason for lower labour force participation levels amongst womenfolk. Menfolk indicated that their personal ill health limited their partaking in the labour force. Hence, poor health mostly resulting from poverty or unemployment hinders labour force participation (Hunter and Gray 2012, 11).

In different countries all over the world, having a low socioeconomic status is related to weak health. Lower earnings are associated with shortcomings such as ill health due to the inability to afford proper health care, briefer life expectancy rates due to exposure to various environmental and health factors, illiteracy and reckless living. Thus, being unable to afford a decent living to unemployment of poorly paying jobs affects the overall health and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Conclusion

The Aboriginal and Strait Islander Indigenous peoples are the most disadvantaged population in Australia. Despite the fact that the Australian government has tried to bridge the gap between Non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians in terms of access to services and opportunities, their vision remains far-fetched. Aboriginal and Strait Islanders encounter setbacks such as unemployment, racism, poor housing and illiteracy that affect their overall health and well-being. Much more needs to be done by the government and the society to ensure that the equal opportunities are availed to the original Australian inhabitants of the country, enabling them to play an important part in building their motherland.

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