Open Access Research article

Exploring the expression of depression and distress in aboriginal men in central Australia: a qualitative study

Alex Brown1*, Ushma Scales, Warwick Beever2, Bernadette Rickards1, Kevin Rowley3 and Kerin O’Dea4

Author Affiliations

1 Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, W and E Rubuntja Building, Alice Springs Hospital, Gap Road, Alice Springs, NT, 0870, Australia

2 Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, 25 Gap Road, Alice Springs, NT, 0870, Australia

3 Onemda VicHealth Koori Health Unit and Centre for Health & Society, School of Population Health, Level 4, 207 Bouverie Street, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, 3010, Australia

4 Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia, GPO Box 2471, Adelaide, South Australia, 5001, Australia

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BMC Psychiatry 2012, 12:97  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-97

Published: 1 August 2012



Despite being at heightened risk of developing mental illness, there has been little research into the experience of depression in Australian Aboriginal populations. This study aimed to outline the expression, experience, manifestations and consequences of emotional distress and depression in Aboriginal men in central Australia.


Utilizing a grounded theory approach, in depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with 22 theoretically sampled young, middle aged and senior Aboriginal men and traditional healers. Analysis was conducted by a single investigator using constant comparison methods.


Depressive symptoms were common and identifiable, and largely consistent with symptom profiles seen in non-Aboriginal groups. For Aboriginal men, depression was expressed and understood as primarily related to weakness or injury of the spirit, with a lack of reference to hopelessness and specific somatic complaints. The primary contributors to depression related to the loss of connection to social and cultural features of Aboriginal life, cumulative stress and marginalisation.


Depression and depressive symptomatology clearly exists in Aboriginal men, however its determinants and expression differ from mainstream populations. Emotions were understood within the construction of spirit, Kurunpa, which was vulnerable to repetitive and powerful negative social forces, loss, and stress across the life course, and served to frame the physical and emotional experience and expression of depression.