Kurunpa [Spirit]: Exploring the Psychosocial Determinants of Coronary Heart Disease among Indigenous men in Central Australia

Kurunpa [Spirit]: Exploring the Psychosocial Determinants of Coronary Heart Disease among Indigenous men in Central Australia Thesis

School of Population Health

  • Author(s): Brown, Alexander
  • Published: 2009
  • Publisher: University of Queensland
  • Volume: Doctor of Philosophy

Abstract: The life expectancy (LE) gap experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in one of Australians most enduring health divides. Whilst there are many likely reasons, cardiovascular diseases (CVD) stand as the primary contributor. In particular, it is the almost ten-fold higher mortality from CVD at young ages that distinguishes this epidemic. The reasons for this disparity remain incompletely understood. Current research has focused on the likely contribution of traditional risk factor burdens in Aboriginal people, who demonstrate higher levels of smoking, obesity, hypertension and dyslipidaemia. Less attention has focused on the potential contribution of disadvantage and its interplay with psychosocial factors. Research on the psychosocial determinants of health, particularly in relation to CVD, has a long pedigree. Social context, particularly inequality between individuals, has assumed its rightful place at the forefront of our understandings of population levels of disease. Among them, socioeconomic position [SEP] and depression are the most robust, and most widely researched. They have not been adequately explored in the context of Aboriginal Australians, nor has the manner in which culture shapes, sustains or transforms disadvantage and psychosocial stress been outlined. The objective of the Men Hearts and Minds (MHM) Study was to identify the possible ways in which social disadvantage may lead to CVD in Aboriginal men in Central Australia and consider the role of psychosocial factors in modifying or mediating this relationship. This required a detailed and multi-disciplinary plan of research, covering the epidemiology of mental illness and chronic diseases, biomedical science, ethnographic field work and qualitative methodologies. Stage I required the development of measurement tools for exploring depression, stress, resilience, mastery and socioeconomic indicators that were valid and robust for use with Aboriginal men within Central Australia. This involved multi-stage qualitative techniques, engaging Aboriginal men, traditional healers (Ngangkari Tjuta) and mental health experts, to define the expressions and construction of mental illness in Aboriginal men. Depression existed, was recognizable, common, and had profound impacts on the social, emotional and physical well-being of Aboriginal men. ‘Worry’ was the most recognisable element, and the principle contributor to depression in Aboriginal men. Much of this was focused on the increasingly heavy and cumulative social and cultural burdens experienced throughout Aboriginal men’s lives, and manifest as a sense of inner turmoil and questioning of self, and of feelings of disconnectedness from all the things of critical importance within their lives. Kurunpa [spirit] was seen as the foundation of vitality and was critical to the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of Aboriginal people. These findings were then used to interrogate existing psychological testing tools and develop novel measures to explore the interplay of SEP, stress and depression. These tools were then used in a community dwelling sample of Aboriginal men in Central Australia to explore the interaction of SEP, stress and depression and their potential contribution to CVD risk. In total 186 Aboriginal men across urban and remote community settings were assessed. Almost 40% of the sample had elevated depressive symptoms. Depression was highly correlated with standard measures of distress and inversely with mastery. Newly created measures, assessing Chronic Stress, the ‘Sense of Injury’ and deprivation, were highly correlated, reliable and fulfilled many validity criteria. There was a high level of cardiovascular risk, which was related to a number of psychosocial factors, particularly depression. Major depression was over 9 times as common in individuals with prevalent CVD. Cardiovascular risk was patterned across social strata, but not evident with the use of routine measures of SEP. Psychosocial factors modified the observed social gradient. In those with high chronic stress, the social gradient in CVD risk gradient was amplified. This pattern was mirrored in those who had been removed or had family forcible removed. Depression was correlated with a number of atherogenic pathways. Smokers were more likely to be depressed, and depression was strongly related to obesity. Individual with high depression scores were more than 20 times more likely to have a Body Mass Index >30. The interplay between the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) (estimated with measures of Heart Rate Variability) and the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis (as measured according to obesity) highlights the interconnections across atherogenic pathways and may frame the cardiometabolic risk and psychosocial pathways to cardiovascular disease in this sample. The phenomenology of cumulative stress, distress and depression within the narratives of Aboriginal men constructed illness as a consequence of the ongoing fight to maintain balance - physically, emotionally and spiritually. From both a social and biological perspective, the construction of depression and heart disease as a consequence of cumulative chronic stress among Aboriginal men was supported in the findings of this work.

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Suggested Citation
Brown, Alexander, 2009, Kurunpa [Spirit]: Exploring the Psychosocial Determinants of Coronary Heart Disease among Indigenous men in Central Australia, Volume:Doctor of Philosophy, Thesis, viewed 27 May 2024, https://www.nintione.com.au/?p=17936.

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