The effects of Australian colonised education systems on the mental health and cultural-identities of Australasian peoples

Author: Casey Abel
Authors note: This research project was originally written as an assignment for an undergraduate course as part of the author's psychology major. The article was written in adherence to the parameters stipulated by the course at the time. It has since undergone minor revisions, and was reformatted as best possible to be published on the Inquirer.  


This project is an investigation into the effects of ‘colonised education systems’ on the mental health and cultural-identities of Australasian (Indigenous) students, within the contemporary Australian educational context. Through an investigative review and analysis of available literature, this project aims to highlight ways in which Teachers in Australia can decolonise their teaching practices and classrooms, to preserve and nurture the mental health and cultural-identities of Australasian students. As such, this project asks the following question:

“What are the psychological effects of colonised education systems on Australasian students in the Australian educational context?”

It is well established that the process of colonisation is inherently insidious to the mental health and cultural identities of colonised subjects (Okazaki, David & Abelmann, 2008; Sonn, 2012;  Kirmayer, Gone & Moses, 2014; Fernández, 2018; Malherbe, 2020; Bhatia, 2020). The forcing of colonised education systems upon colonised cultures forms an integral part of the process of colonisation. Colonised education systems typically target the youth demographics of colonised cultures, with the express purpose of invalidating their pre-existing ways of knowing and of living. In this sense, colonised education systems are tools of forced assimilation and genocide (Nakata, 2007; Nelson & Phillips, 2018; McNamara & Naepi, 2018; Watkins, Ciofalo & James, 2018). Colonised education systems are therefore by definition a form of colonial-violence. It is expected that this project will conclude that the effects of colonised education systems are inherently insidious to the mental health and cultural-identities of Australasian students within the Australian educational context.


Definition of Terms

This section defines technical terms which either originate from the research of specific authors, the author himself, or technical terms requiring contextualisation. These terms are complex and nuanced to their relevant fields of academia, each contributing clarity and specificity to the phenomena investigated within this research project.


The term ‘Australasian’ in this paper refers broadly to First Nation Australian peoples and Australian First Nations. This term is inclusive of both the ‘Aboriginal’ and Torres Strait Islander’ identities which were superimposed onto Australasian societies by the British post invasion. Geographically, many Australian First Nations had territories on the continental landmass, whereas others were entirely separated from the landmass existing as island states. Some First Nations had territories on both the landmass and overseas. ‘Australasia’ therefore serves as a geographically accurate umbrella term when referring collectively to Australian First Nations and Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The term also serves to identify the unique historical realities of Australasian peoples, particularly in regard to the term ‘Aboriginal’ which has been imposed onto various First Nations colonised by the British Empire around the globe. The term is used interchangeably with the terms ‘Indigenous’ and ‘First Nation/s’.

Colonised Education Systems

The term ‘colonised education systems’ refers to the social and educational institutions of a colonising power, which are forced upon the colonised subject/s. There is explanatory power in understanding colonised education systems, in that they legitimise the knowledge systems and ways of being of the coloniser whilst subalternising those of the colonised (Aman, 2018; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990).

            Cultural Interface

The term ‘cultural interface’ refers to the Cultural Interface Theory posited by Martin Nakata (Nakata, 2007). Cultural Interface Theory is a model that attempts to allow individuals of separate cultures to create intercultural understanding. The cultural interface is conceptualised as the contested space situated between two disparate knowledge systems. In this space a variety of factors intersect and interact including socio-cultural histories, economics, multiple and interconnected discourses, social practices, and methods of knowledge production among other variables. The cultural interface inherently exists when two or more people from separate cultures interact.

            Epistemic Violence

The term ‘epistemic’ refers to the ‘episteme’ as conceptualised by Michel Foucault (Foucault, 1969). Foucault (1969) defines the episteme as ‘…the totality of the relations that can be discovered, for a given period, between the sciences when one analyses them at the level of discursive regularities.’ (pg. 191). This interpretation of the episteme allows for the interpretation of epistemic violence (Brunner, 2020), literally violence through knowledge, and subsequently the conceptualisation of ‘colonial violence’ within the context of the post-colonial era.



Method of Research

This research project utilised an inquiry-based approach premised on the question, “What are the psychological effects of colonised education systems on Australasian students in the Australian educational context?”.

This project comparatively assessed the current state of Indigenous and non-Indigenous student educational achievements and mental health statistics within the Australian educational context. This project interpreted factors presented by the literature in relation to the Cultural Interface, in effort to understand how these current conditions relate to colonial violence, both concurrent and current, as committed through colonised education systems.

To do this, factors presented by the literature were conceptualised as either ‘enduring historical legacies of colonial violence’ or as ‘contemporary acts of colonial violence’: both considered within the present day context, and epistemic in nature. This was done to identify and contextualise concurrent, and current, relevant factors into their accurate historical contexts, in order to interpret their contemporary effects upon the cultural interface situated between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and teachers.

This made it possible to determine which colonial-violence legacies have endured from the colonial-era to the present-day affecting the cultural interface within Australian colonised education systems. Both concurrent and current manifestations of colonial violence were then interpreted to understand their negative impacts upon the mental health and cultural-identities of Australasian students.

            Method of Literature Selection

Studies pertaining to colonised education systems in the Australian context are few, as this is an area academic neglect. To gain a holistic understanding of colonised education systems and their impacts upon colonised peoples, both national and international studies were considered appropriate for inclusion. This project has cited literature from America, Canada, Germany, South Africa, and New Zealand as well as from Australia.

In choosing literature to assess as part of this project, a criteria was devised whereby literature had to be current within the past ten years, or of significant relevance. Literature had to be relevant to the psychology of colonisation, the psychological effects of colonisation upon colonised peoples, or philosophically or linguistically relevant regarding concepts necessary to navigating this line of inquiry. Literature reviewed as part of this project include quantitative data sources including peer-reviewed studies and Australian Government reports. The majority of the literature reviewed consisted of qualitative data sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles from the psychology and education sectors. Works of philosophy and linguistics were consulted where required.


 Literature Review

Educational Achievement Statistics

The Closing the Gap Project [CTGP] is a Federal Australian Government initiative aiming to reduce life discrepancies between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that has been in effect since 2008.  The 2020 CTGP report reveals an enduring trend (Australian Government, 2010; Australian Government, 2014; Australian Government, 2018) of lacklustre results in achieving most target areas (Australian Government, 2020). It also shows that the school attendance rates of Australasian students have not improved over the five year period to 2019[1]. There exists a disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian students in the first year of schooling, and this disparity widens through each successive school year (pg. 36).  By Year 10[2] Indigenous students are attending school 72% of the time in comparison to non-Indigenous students who attend 89% of the time (pg. 37). Targets to halve the number of Indigenous students achieving below national minimum standards for reading, literacy, and numeracy between 2008 and 2018[3] have not been met (pg. 49). As of 2019, 62% of Indigenous students either graduate year 12 or achieve a Level II vocational certificate or higher, in comparison to 90% of non-Indigenous students (pg. 59). These statistics are critical as educational success is considered a key health determinant of Australasian peoples (AIHW, 2020a; AIHW, 2020b; Australian Government, 2020).

            Mental Health Statistics

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework [ATSIHPF] is an initiative by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW] to monitor the national health performances and determinants of Australasian peoples (AIHW, 2020a). The AIHW makes use of age standardised statistics for their data in this report. According to the AIHW 2020 report, the suicide rate for Indigenous Australians increased between 2006 to 2018 from 18 to 24 per 100,000 compared to non-Indigenous Australians who increased from 10 to 12 per 100,000. Compared statistics from 2004-2005 and 2016-2017 reveal the rate of hospitalisation due to intentional self-harm increased by 120% for Indigenous females from 2.2 to 4.5 per 1,000, and 81% for Indigenous males from 1.6 to 2.4 per 1,000 (pg. 12).

The AIHW has released additional more age specific statistics on their website. Accordingly, 14.8% of Indigenous Australian youth aged 0-14 years identified as having anxiety, 2.5% as having depression, and 11.3% as having behavioural or emotional problems. In the age bracket of 15-24 years, these statistics increased dramatically to 17.9% identifying as having anxiety, 15% as having depression, and 9.5% as having behavioural or emotional problems (AIHW, 2020b). The AIHW does not provide comparative data of non-Indigenous youth.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is the Australian Government’s primary agency responsible for statistical collection and analysis of citizen data. According to ABS statistics released in 2020, the suicide rate for Indigenous Australians is twice that of non-Indigenous Australians, corroborating with statistics released by the AIHW. The median age of Indigenous suicide victims is 30.5 for males and 27 for females. Comparatively, the median age for non-Indigenous victims of suicide is 43.9 for males and 44 for females (ABS, 2020).

Meeting at the Cultural Interface

As articulated by Nakata (2007), the cultural interface is the contested visual space between two disparate cultures (knowledge systems) wherein various histories, politics, invariably connected discourses, knowledge systems and other variables interact and typically conflict (pg. 9). To interpret the preceding statistics in relation to colonial violence, the author (a socialised white-Australian) must reach the cultural interface to engage a lens inclusive of Australasian knowledge systems and perspectives (Cook, Richie & Booth, 2020; Nelson & Phillips, 2019; McNamara & Naepi, 2018; Watkins et al, 2018).

Tatz (2005) attempts to explain inherent differences in causation for high rates of suicide among Australasian peoples, “Very few Aborigines live ‘non-Aboriginal’ lives, divorced from their social and personal histories, origins, geographies, families, lifestyles, cultures and sub-cultural mores.” (pg. 1). Australia is an existing nation-state to White Australians and migrant-Australians. Many Australasian peoples however, balance this perspective with their socio-cultural recognition of the myriad borders that existed prior to British invasion and colonisation. Many Australasian peoples actively perceive ancient and ongoing ‘Aboriginal’ nations (Nelson & Phillips, 2018) [4]. Indigenous epistemologies, ways of knowing, and living are not lost to Australasian peoples, and they continue to operate as integral aspects of identities as they have since time immemorial (Nakata, 2007).

In the Western context, aspects of identity that do not conform to Eurocentric Western knowledge systems are rejected and subalternised by Western knowledge systems (Aman, 2018; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990; Nakata, 2007; Nelson & Phillips, 2018). Affirming Western systems of knowledge over non-Western or non-settler systems creates and perpetuates social impressions of inferiority and of the perceived ‘other’ (Bunda, Zipin & Brennan, 2012; Henderson, 2000; McNamara & Naepi, 2018). This systemic mechanism is a core function of colonised education systems, an aspect of systemic racism, and an enduring legacy of colonial violence. The typical response of colonised peoples to this systemic mechanism is to affirm one’s identity and resist (Dudgeon & Fielder, 2006; Groot, Hodgetts, Nikora, & Cook, 2011).


Research results

The Australian Education System encompasses a variety of colonised education systems, including the public, private, and religious systems. Burgess (2017) contextualises Australian colonised education systems as schools embedded within historical, social, and cultural contexts initially imported from Britain. They are representative of monolingual, hegemonic Western based systems of knowledge production which reproduce norms and standards evident in pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment (pg. 738). It is evident from the reviewed literature that these colonised education systems subalternise Australasian ways of knowing and living.

Given that Indigenous student performance in the classroom is intimately linked as a health determinant (AIHW, 2020a; AIHW, 2020b; Australian Government, 2020), it is imperative to understand how colonised education systems are inherently detrimental to the mental health of Australasian students. Most global studies investigating Indigenous suicide rates have determined colonisation as a cause (Pollock, Naicker, Loro, Mulay and Colman, 2018). It is pertinent to identify colonial violence legacies and contemporary manifestations of colonial violence within colonised education systems.

It is an inherent and natural human response to attempt to become a valued member of any social group associated with personal identity (Neville, Oyama & Odunewu, 2014). As shown by the literature, colonised education systems subalternise Australasian cultural identities framing them as ‘other’, and are therefore degenerative to Australasian students’ mental health and cultural-identities. White-Australian cultural ideas of ‘authentic aboriginality’ have colonial origins, cause great anguish in Australasian peoples and are pervasive in Australian colonised education systems (Dandy, Durkin, Barber & Houghton, 2015; Gorringe, Ross & Fforde, 2011; Guenther, Lowe, Burgess, Vass & Moodie, 2019;  Hart, Whatman, McLaughlin & Brymer, 2012; Riley & Pidgeon, 2018). It is evident from the literature that colonised education systems have insidious long term effects to the mental health and cultural identities of Australasian students.


Future plan

It is imperative that educators attempt to de-colonise their classrooms to the fullest extent within their control. In reference to the literature, I have identified three ways to de-colonise my teaching practice and/or classroom.

            Cultural Humility

Cultural Humility is a concept in cross-cultural psychology that refers to the condition of an individual being respectful, considerate, open-minded towards, and actively interested in learning more about different cultures and their perspectives (Hall, 2017). Methods of decolonising existing institutions through Cultural Humility involve recognising that speaking in place of colonised peoples is an act of colonising, that preferencing Western practices creates power imbalances, and that the validation of the methodologies of colonised peoples are necessary in challenging the imperial basis of Western knowledge (Nelson & Phillips, 2018).

Australian educators can practice Cultural Humility by first conceptualising it as a life-long objective. They should begin by self-reflecting and critiquing their experiences to gain insight into the assumptions that their culture has socialised them into thinking and believing (DiAngelo, 2019; Nelson & Conyer, 2018). They should actively include, if not preference, the knowledge systems of Australasian students and educators (Adams, Dobles, Gomez, Kurtis & Molina, 2015). These steps will allow educators to actively challenge the eurocentrism of contemporary hegemonic Western knowledge based colonised education systems. 

Reflecting Upon Ethnic Prejudice and Recognition of National/Cultural Identities

The historical use of government institutions, particularly of schools, as a means of genocide against Australasian peoples has created a culture of distrust (Australian Government, 2020; Nelson & Phillips, 2018). This distrust remains contemporarily justified. Multiple studies have shown that Australian teachers and pre-service teachers hold tremendous racial prejudices towards Australasian students (Guenther et al, 2018; Hart et al, 2012; Riley & Pidgeon, 2018). It is imperative therefore that educators reflect and challenge their internal prejudices towards Australasian students.

Educators can begin to do this by first coming to terms with the fact that there is no spectrum of ‘Aboriginality’. Within Australasian communities inclusion is determined by family, community, and culture. It is not determined by skin colour or any notion of ‘blood quantum’. Aboriginality and its associations are White-Australian constructs that are harmful to the cultural-identities and mental health of Australasian peoples (Gorringe et al, 2011).

Educators must accept that terms such as ‘Aboriginal’ are colonial tools of homogenisation which serve to erase Australasian identities, i.e. Wiradjuri, Quandamooka etc. To recognise and appreciate that prior to invasion, Australasia was comprised of hundreds of distinct countries. That many Australasian peoples still recognise their nations and expect to be referred to as such: educators should ask Australasian students what their identities are, and respect them by referring to them as such as they presumably would do any other student (Nelson & Philips, 2018).

            The Classroom as a Normalised Non-Eurocentric Multi-Cultural Space

Australia is a multi-cultural nation, and this should be reflected in the classroom. Studies have shown that Australian teachers and pre-service teachers hold tremendous racial prejudices towards Australasian students (Guenther et al, 2018; Hart et al, 2012; Riley & Pidgeon, 2018), as well as to students of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds (Dandy et al, 2015).

Educators can begin de-socialising themselves of internalised harmful stereotypes and racial and ethnic prejudices, by engaging meaningfully with cultural communities connected to their classrooms via their diverse students (Riley & Pidgeon, 2018). Culture should be connected to the classroom through community involvement in teaching and learning, to the extent that this can be facilitated by the educator and/or school (Guenther et al, 2018). Educators should endeavour to learn Australasian pedagogies, and practice them equitably in the classroom (Hart et al, 2012; Preston & Claypool, 2013).



Upon the outset of this project I anticipated a lack of literature. I was blindsided by the abundance of literature and research finding it overwhelming. When writing the report itself, I realised that I lacked the vocabulary to enunciate the revelations of my investigation. Learning the term epistemic allowed me to articulate how colonial violence has persisted to the present day, and manifests in alternate forms contemporaneously. Particular examples include conscious and unconscious educator racial prejudice, or the inherent subalternising of non-Western knowledge systems by colonised education systems. I feel a new arena of research in contemporary education has been revealed to me, and that there is a dire need for educators to decolonise their classrooms.

By navigating this line of inquiry the research question was successfully answered. In visualising epistemic violence, and its intersecting with the Cultural Interface, I can understand how Australasian mental health and cultural-identity degradation is intimately twined with Australian colonised education systems. Given the scope of this project, I was not able to include all of the literature I found, or even fully dissect and discuss all of the literature I included. As well, much of the literature I acquired originated from outside of the Australian context. With this in mind, my investigation has revealed a lack of research regarding the effects of colonised education systems upon Australasian students’ mental health and cultural-identities.

Future research should focus on the extent to which colonised education systems are insidious to mental and cultural health of Australasian students. Ideally, I would have produced an educated estimate regarding this question, however while I have ascertained that the impacts are real, and quite insidious, I cannot provide a precise estimation.


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[1] The 2020 report only measures these statistics to 2019.

[2] The 2020 report only measures these statistics to the 10th Grade.

[3] The 2020 report only measures these statistics to 2018.

[4] In her own words, Bundjalung educator Dei Phillips explains during a dialogism with psychologist Ruth Nelson:
“This is something that people [non-Indigenous Australians] struggle to understand. Australia, as it was named, is one block landmass. But, before colonisation, there were a mass of little countries. Each had their own cultures, their own languages, their own systems, and their own laws (pg.345).”



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