3 Can Narrative Therapy Assist to Alleviate Feelings of Homesickness in Indigenous Boarding School Students Who Leave Their Home Community to Attend High School?

Faith Strong


Australian Aboriginal students living in community who wish to pursue secondary education are usually required to leave their homes and attend boarding school in a different part of the country. Thus far, limited research is available regarding the best ways to support these students. The research question posed here is whether narrative therapy can assist to alleviate feelings of homesickness in Indigenous students who leave their home community to attend high school. This review is comprised of information from research literature, theory-based literature, empirical (or practice-based) literature, and statistical reports. Research demonstrates that the majority of Aboriginal students who leave their community to attend boarding school suffer intense homesickness, which in turn often negatively impacts them maintaining their education and receiving their desired educational qualification. Narrative therapy has been identified as a culturally appropriate therapy that has been used with various Indigenous populations around the world, including in Australia, with positive results. Additionally, narrative therapy has been tested with different population groups suffering with a range of symptoms that are often the outcomes of intense homesickness, including depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness and feelings of grief and loss. In summary, the research provides promise that narrative therapy can assist with alleviating homesickness feelings in Indigenous Australian boarding school students

Homesickness experienced by First Nations secondary school students at boarding school often leads to negative impacts on mental health, in turn affecting educational attainment. Therefore, it is vital that approaches counsellors can utilise to support these students are explored. Generally, it is agreed that homesickness involves thoughts so focussed on home that various negative impacts on wellbeing can occur, and this experience is profound in Aboriginal adolescents who leave their home community to attend boarding school. One therapy that has been identified as producing positive outcomes for various Australian Aboriginal populations is Michael White’s Narrative Therapy (NT), which taps into their cultural tradition of storytelling. Despite evidence regarding the use of NT for homesickness being scarce, research on its efficacy as a therapeutic treatment for symptoms associated with homesickness, including depression, anxiety, and loneliness, is reassuring. This provides encouragement that NT may be an effective method of supporting Aboriginal students at boarding schools who are homesick.


Definition and Impacts

Homesickness is something that has been experienced across time, with early references made in Homer’s Greek poem the Odyssey, where Athena begs Zeus to bring a miserable Odysseus home. Now, researchers regard homesickness as a complex occurrence with symptoms manifesting at different levels, either in anticipation of, or upon separating, from home (Stroebe et al., 2002). Generally, homesickness is understood as thoughts focused on home, comprising of missing family and familiar environments, and wanting to be at homeHomesickness is understood as thoughts focused on home, comprising of missing family and familiar environments, and wanting to be at home.. These thoughts often produce negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, fear, and loneliness (Thurber, 1995). Additionally, symptoms such as sleep disturbances, appetite loss, withdrawn behaviours and difficulty concentrating are common for those experiencing intense homesickness (Stroebe et al., 2016). Additionally, physical symptoms including headaches and stomach pain may be experienced (Thurber, 1995). Fisher et al. (1990) conclude ‘that homesickness is a complex cognitive-emotional-motivational state characterised by preoccupation with home and accompanied by grief-like symptoms’ (p.39). In this vein, homesickness has been described as a mini-grief: a sense of home-related losses (Landa et al., 2020; Stroebe et al., 2002; Stroebe et al., 2016). A useful summary of the most prominent definitions of homesickness is outlined by Stroebe et al., 2016. Further impacts of protracted and untreated homesickness include a greater intention to return home, as well as negative feelings about the setting and experience (Saravanan et al., 2017). Additionally, homesickness, if untreated, is correlated negatively with academic performance, as well as an increased likelihood of dropping out of education (Landa et al., 2020).

Experiences of Homesickness

Importantly, research identifies that children, adults and all genders define homesickness in the same way and that the homesickness experience is similar for a range of cultures including Western, Middle-eastern, European, Asian, and African (Thurber, 1995). There is evidence to suggest, however, while homesickness is evident across cultures, there may be some culturally specific patterns. For example, during one study it was found that international students in America were more homesick than national students, and in Europe, university students in the United Kingdom were more homesick than Dutch students (Stroebe et al., 2002).

Additionally, there are some contradictory studies regarding homesickness severity amongst different age groupsThere are some contradictory studies regarding homesickness severity amongst different age groups.. For example, Brewin et al. (1989) found that younger aged university students felt homesickness more intensively than those with an older chronological age. However, Fisher et al. (1986) found no link between chronological age and homesickness experience in their study of boarding school students. In relation to gender differences, Fisher et al. (1990) found in a study of 100 children and youth attending boarding school in Australian that girls self-reported higher frequencies of homesickness experience. Notably, it is possible that results from such studies outlined above may not be conclusive for several reasons. These reasons include the different measurements of homesickness used, and the variation in the points in time within the process of separation from home when the testing occurred. Importantly, in their 2022 meta-analysis of homesickness studies, Demetriou et al. (2022) found that overall there were no differences in age or gender in relation to the severity of homesickness. In relation to the effect of time, studies have identified different results, with some identifying that homesickness can increase over time (Thurber, 1995), and others reporting either no duration effects (Watt & Badger, 2009), or homesickness decreasing after the first semester of study away from home (Brewin et al., 1989).

Homesickness Risk Factors

The risk factors for severe homesickness include younger chronological age, lack of perceived control, perceived discrimination, few experiences away from home, insecure attachment to parents, and viewing the distance from home as far (Thurber, 1995). Additionally, Zulkarnain et al. (2020) found that research supported an external (rather than internal) locus of control and a lack of social support placed first year boarding students at increased risk of intense homesickness. In their meta-analysis, Demetriou et al. (2022) found that a range of factors affected homesickness experiences, including interpersonal and intrapersonal factors for example, peer relationships, anxiety depression and cognitive attributions such as negative first impressions, and expectations of homesickness.

Tools for Measuring Homesickness

Several scales have been developed to measure homesickness. Stroebe et al. (2002) developed the Utrecht homesickness scale, which contains 20 items with a 5-point Likert scale. The scale consists of five factors, which are: missing home; adjustment difficulties; missing friends; loneliness and, ruminations about home. Various tests have occurred in different populations to test the consistency of this scale, with high internal reliability found. For a United Kingdom sample, the internal consistency coefficient for total homesickness was calculated as α = .93, and for a Netherland sample, it was found to be as α = .94 (Sezer et al., 2021). For a Turkish sample, the internal consistency coefficient for total homesickness was found to be as α = .84 (Sezer et al., 2021), and in another study of teenagers and young adults in Turkey, it was found to be α = .90 (Duru & Balkis, 2013).

Homesickness in Children and Youth

Descriptions of how homesickness is displayed in youth are complex and include behavioural, somatic, cognitive and affective domains (Venberg & Randall, 2006). Particularly relevant for teenagers is the lack of control they perceive with relocating away from home, which has been shown to affect the level of homesickness experienced in some studies (Fisher, 2016). Interestingly, whilst geographical distance from home was a factor correlated with increased homesickness in university students, the same correlation was not evidenced in adolescent boarding school students (Fisher, 2016).

Numerous studies have delved into the prevalence and experience of homesickness in youth. For example, Thurber (1995) studied 329 boys aged 8-16 while away on summer camps for either two or four weeks. Significantly, it was found that homesickness was prevalent, and intensity varied from some homesickness for one day or more, to intense homesickness leading to severe anxiety and depression (Thurber, 1995). A 2022 systemic review and meta-analysis of 17 quantitative studies on homesickness in children aged under 18 years across a range of settings found that homesickness, which was associated with negative emotional states, was reported in most children separated from home. There was also a significant relationship between depression and homesickness identified (r=0.431), as well as homesickness and anxiety (Demetriou et al., 2022).

There has also been research conducted into the experience of youth attending boarding schools in numerous countries across the world. Several studies conducted across Turkey, for example, revealed widespread problems linked with homesickness including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, skipping school and academic failure (Atli, 2018). In a review of these Turkey-specific studies, Atli (2018) found that the most intensive problem area addressed by boarding school counsellors was homesickness. In a British survey, 762 participants identified homesickness as the worst thing about attending boarding school (Morgan, 2011). Likewise, in Australia, Fisher et al. (1986) reviewed three studies related to homesickness in young people attending a new boarding school; overall, 75% of the participants self-described as being homesick, had elevated rates of reported ailments and general unhappiness

Homesickness in Indigenous Populations

The move from community to a regional setting often leads to the experience of both homesickness and culture shock for various Indigenous populations around the world. Specifically, German (1997) identifies that for the Indigenous population in the North West Territories of Canada, ‘mere’ homesickness is compounded significantly into a ‘spiritual challenge’ (p.34), whereby students must not only face the challenges of education, but also social, emotional, physical and spiritual transitions (Tribal College, 2003). In another study, Griffin-Pierce (1997) delved into the experience of the Navajos- an Indigenous population in Arizona, who had left home for reasons such as education. Specifically, Griffin-Pierce (1997) described this experience as a ‘spiritual dislocation’ and a ‘psychological trauma’ (p.5).

In Australia, the majority of Indigenous youth living in remote communities are unable to access quality secondary education without moving away, most often to boarding schools (English & Guerin, 2017; Furnham, 2006). The challenges Thurber & Walton (2012) identified that international students in America experience as a result of the high levels of acculturation stress are relevant for Australian Indigenous youth moving from Aboriginal communities to boarding schools in regional and urban areas. These adjustment challenges often include: cultural difference; environmental differences; language differences; shifts in responsibilities; reduction in the size of the familiar peer groups; awkward stereotypes of their home; and discrimination (Thurber & Walton, 2012). Furthermore, it is noted that these challenges can lead to significant cognitive and emotional consequences (Thurber & Walton, 2012).

Various studies regarding Indigenous boarding school students’ experiences in Australia have been undertaken. For example, a 2015 report of 32 Indigenous male boarding school students in Perth found that, despite the modern technology of mobile phones, skype and email, homesickness for Aboriginal boarders was prevalent, and began almost immediately upon leaving country (Mander et al., 2015). A further study conducted by English & Guerin in an Adelaide residential program of 57 First Nations students who had moved from central Australia to access secondary education confirmed that homesickness was the most prominent negative impact on their happiness (2017). Specifically, MacDonald et al. (2018) identified that the cultural and linguistic differences faced by these students lead to them more frequently experiencing intense homesickness than non-Indigenous boarding students.

In fact, moving away from home communities to attend boarding schools often has significant consequencesMoving away from home communities to attend boarding schools often has significant consequences., including damaged home and family connections, slow academic performance and a range of outcomes that are typically associated with intense homesickness, including depression and anxiety symptoms and disengagement from education to return home (Whettingsteel et al., 2020). Furthermore, Macdonald et al., (2018) report lost social capital within their communities in the form of close friendships, status, or respect, and at times this cost led to increasing homesickness, leading in turn to students returning home prior to completing their qualification. Specifically, a 2020 report which examined one hundred children over a decade who left their Northern Territory community to attend boarding school, found these children suffered from acute homesickness (O’bryan & Fogarty, 2020). Significantly, the authors found that most of the students (74%) had dropped out of schooling by years seven and eight and did not return to education; one of the primary reasons identified for this was that they felt culturally and socially isolated, and missed their home community (O’bryan & Fogarty, 2020).

Narrative Therapy

White’s Narrative Therapy

The NT approach was pioneered by Michael White, both alone and in collaboration with David Epston, while he was working as a family therapist (Goolishian & Anderson, 1992). Specifically, White drew on the work of French philosopher Michael Foucault, using the theoretical platforms of Faucault’s explanation of knowledge and power, as well as his analysis of the humanistic (Guilfoyle, 2012). All clients bring stories about their lives to therapy, and according to the narrative metaphor approach developed by White, changing the stories they tell themselves leads to life transformation (Gonçalves et al., 2009).

Rather than viewing identity as something internal or core to a person, narrative theory posits that ideas, qualities and problems are created through relationship with others (Lani Castan, 2020). Fundamental to White’s therapeutic technique is the externalisation of the problem, as clients are assisted to commence categorising their problems as distinct from their identities (White, 1990). Following this, exceptions are explored and then, a narrative frame is used to provide opportunity for the authoring of alternate stories outside of the discourse that has been dominant until now, thus maintaining the problem (White, 2004). These alternate stories fit within the client’s main lived experiences and are often preferred by them, providing them with opportunities to gain greater control over their lives (Carr, 1998). Following this process, sharing of the new self-narrative and several literary means are used to further develop and consolidate this self-narrative (White, 1990). Carr (1998) outlines the nine narrative therapy processes.

Evidence for Narrative Therapy

White’s approach to NT has been used within a wide range of contexts within mainstream mental health settings, including to treat children, adolescents and adults who have difficulties with child abuse, marital conflict, bullying, grief, anorexia nervosa and schizophrenia (Carr, 1998). In relation specifically to youth and children, Esquivel et al. (2010) identify that NT, with its strength based approach, assists in facilitating resilience, as well as helping to cope with stress and psychological adaption.

Inspired by the work completed by White, numerous practitioners have discussed NT’s merits and applied it clinically within mainstream therapy (Freedman & Combs, 1996; Zimmerman & Dickerson, 1996). In 2011, Wallis et al. noted that compared to other therapeutic interventions, there are fewer studies that would classify as ‘good’ evidence for the effectiveness of narrative therapies. However, numerous controlled trials and cohort studies using White’s NT have occurred since this time, including the following:

  • 89 Chinese carers of a family member with schizophrenia were provided with narrative therapy in a group context. The results identified that these family carers reported better family relationships, could identify more inner resources and better family relationships than the control group (Zhou et al., 2020).
  • A seven week NT intervention was provided to 50 oral cancer patients, leading to an enhanced sense of self-worth and social support as well as significantly reduced stigma as compared to the 50 patients who received standard care only (Sun et al., 2022).
  • 63 clients with depression were provided either NT or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Both displayed a significant reduction of symptoms, particularly when compared to wait-list control groups (Lopes et al., 2014).
  • A study of twelve participants who had received NT over a period of at least six months in Mumbai, India found during qualitative interviews that the participants felt greater control over their lives (Baldiwala & Kanakia, 2022).

NT in Indigenous Cultures

Narrative therapy is identified by numerous scholars as a culturally sensitive approach. NT is identified by numerous scholars as a culturally sensitive approach (Esquivel et al., 2010). Specifically, Esquivel et al., (2010) explain that culture is viewed through narratives across historical, social, material, and mental dimensions, and created through shared communication, interactions and understandings in a culture. In light of this, NT has been utilised successfully as a therapeutic approach with a number of Indigenous cultures (often referred to as ‘Indigenous NT) due to its ‘decolonising approach to counselling work with Indigenous populations’ (Smeja, 2019), including the African Diaspora (Ngazimbi, 2016), and various cultural groups within America (Mehl-Madrona & Mainguy, 2020).

Specifically, within Australia, the Aboriginal culture has a rich tradition of telling stories as a way to educate and inform; NT draws on this cultural custom (Akinyela, 2014). Additionally, Towney (2005) identifies that the narrative process provides space for Aboriginal persons to talk about what is important to them- their values, their culture, and that over time life stories are further developed and shared, and healing and dignity begins to develop and flourish. Notably, NT practice is entwined with ‘specific cultural and historical processes’, with Speedy (2000) stating that it is ‘not coincidental that the practices have arisen principally from Australia and New Zealand’ (p.361).

White (2003), himself, employed NT in his work with Aboriginal communities in Australia; he notes that these community members were disenfranchised and marginalised, and often had extensive trauma experiences, with a wide range of dilemmas and difficulties faced within social injustice contexts. In these instances, White used the NT reauthoring techniques to help community members address difficulties related to conditions of marginalisation, dispassion and disadvantage (White, 2003), with White identifying specific practices of his therapy model that assisted with healing, and with participants taking control of a life narrative that produced hope and optimism for the future.

Kilcullen et al. (2018) completed a systematic review of evidence-based psychological intervention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The authors note that ‘limited empirical literature exists examining the application of evidenced-based psychotherapies when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’ (Kilcullen et al., 2018, p.206). In total, 12 articles were reviewed that tested four different therapies, including three testing NT. All three of these studies posited that NT is culturally appropriate and effective with this population, with the studies identifying positive outcomes, including substantially increased parental confidence and stronger relationships between Indigenous children and their parents (Kilcullen et al., 2018). However, Kilkullen et al. (2021, p.207) noted that these articles ‘demonstrated the lowest quality rating of literature’, were based on n=1 studies and the only outcome data were from a secondary study.

Narrative Therapy and Homesickness

It has been identified that chronic avoidance of thoughts and/or feelings regarding home is detrimental because in order to be alleviated, homesickness needs to be processed (Landa et al., 2020). Various studies testing the result of different therapies on homesickness, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) (Saravanan et al., 2017) are available. However, only one study was identified testing the effectiveness of NT on participants with homesickness. Specifically, in their 2004 thesis, Thorp tested the effect of NT sessions on 60 boarding school students aged 13-15 in Christchurch, New Zealand. The outcome of this study found that although there were no statistically significant changes in the levels of homesickness of the study participants, beneficial effects still occurred. Specifically, the levels of homesickness experienced by the therapy group did decrease, as evidenced by their self-scoring on a homesickness scale developed for this study, even if it was not to a scientifically significant level (Thorp, 2004). Conversely, the homesickness levels for the control group increased over time (Thorp, 2004). In order to further understand the potential benefits of NT for people experiencing homesickness, it is important to review the effects of NT on various identified outcomes of homesickness, including depression, anxiety, stress, and loneliness (Thurber & Walton, 2012; Thurber, 1995; Fisher et al., 1990; Demetriou et al., 2022; Atli, 2018).

Narrative Therapy and Depression

The effects of NT on depression have been tested on a range of populations. One such example is a 2014 randomised control trial of 40 adults who received 20 NT sessions over 23 weeks, as compared to the second group who received the same number of CBT sessions (Lopes et al., 2014). In summary, significant reductions in symptoms occurred across both groups occurred, particularly compared to the waitlist group (Lopes et al., 2014). A further randomised control trial of 50 people with depression, 25 of which were waitlisted and 25 who received eight sessions of NT, found that NT increased hope, positive emotions and other cognitive-emotional outcomes, as well as decreased depression symptoms (Seo et al., 2015).

Narrative Therapy and Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most frequently reported effects of homesickness (Stroebe et al., 2002; Thurber, 1995; Bramston & Patrick, 2007). One randomised control study to determine the effectiveness of NT on Iranian children with imprisoned parents experiencing depression and anxiety found that the 45 children receiving NT showed high effect sizes of reduction in depression (3.05) and anxiety (0.9), whereas the control group’s overall depression levels remained the same and anxiety remained stable. A further study regarding the social anxiety and self-esteem in female Isfahan students found that of the 30 participants, the 15 who received NT demonstrated decreased social anxiety and increased self-esteem compared to the control group, with the researchers identifying that the therapy was meaningfully effective (Ghavami et al., 2014)

Narrative Therapy and Grief and Loss

As noted earlier in this report, homesickness has been described as a ‘mini-grief’ (Stroebe et al., 2002). As such, the effectiveness of NT on grief is considered relevant for this study. Rafaely & Goldberg (2020, p.482) state that NT ‘offers an exceptional set of tools to frame the grief counselling process due to its focus on meaning making’. Specifically, a 2011 study of ten people suffering prolonged grief who received 16 weekly sessions of NT found that the participants demonstrated a significant reduction in grief, depression and PTSD symptoms (Elinger et al., 2021).

Narrative Therapy and Loneliness

Loneliness encompasses both a social dimension and an emotional element (Stacey & Edwards, 2013). In one limited cohort study of five men aged between 29 and 50, with mild intellectual impairments, experiencing loneliness, eight sessions of NT delivered over 10 weeks led to improvements in the participant’s self-rating of loneliness by the end of the therapy (Stacey & Edwards, 2013). A further 2012 study occurred using a quasi-experimental research method with a control group to identify the effect of eight group NT sessions on 24 elderly Iranian women experiencing loneliness (Anvar Dastbaz et al., 2014). The results demonstrated a significant difference between the pre and post loneliness scores of the women in the therapy group, which the authors believe provides an argument for NT being effective in age care settings to reduce the effects of loneliness (Anvar Dastbaz et al., 2014).

Narrative Therapy, Stress and Displacement

NT has been found to be effective in assisting children and adults who experience high levels of stress, including those that have been displaced from their homes (Schauer et al., 2017). Boyd (2017) found in their case study working with refugees suffering intergenerational trauma in the Congo that White’s NT practices and techniques were helpful in reducing the effects of trauma and displacement. Additionally, specific studies of NT on displaced refugee children have been conducted; one such study is the 2010 study of children in a refugee camp in Germany, 26 of whom received eight sessions of NT (Ruf et al., 2010). Importantly, this group of children showed a clinically significant improvement in relation to their symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression as compared to the control group, and these results were maintained at the 12 month follow up (Ruf et al., 2010).

Summary- Homesickness, Narrative Therapy and Australian Indigenous Boarding Students

Homesickness remains one of the most prominent challenges facing Aboriginal secondary school boarding students in Australia (Whettingsteel et al., 2020). In Macdonald et al.’s (2018) study, elders and parents within the Aboriginal community described the majority of youth who had disconnected from boarding school early as disengaged from productive community life, instead engaging in behaviours such as drinking, smoking marijuana, ‘roaming around’ and ‘going bad’ (p.12). Conversely, completion of secondary school is directly linked with increased economic, job and life opportunities (Biddle, 2006), as well as indirect positive effects in relation to health, consumer choices and education for one’s own children (Hunter & Biddle, 2012). The positive results of NT addressing the range of symptoms usually experienced during intense homesickness (Seo et al., 2015; Bramston & Patrick, 2007; Anvar Dastbaz et al., 2014; Anvar Dastbaz et al., 2014; Schauer et al., 2017) provides promise regarding it being an appropriate intervention to reduce the intensity and severity of homesickness, and the subsequent high rate of education drop-out (Macdonald et al., 2018) amongst this group of students. Crucially, the individual positive outcomes that effective therapy for homesickness could bring about in encouraging the completion of secondary education in turn, has the potential to influence current and future Aboriginal populations The individual positive outcomes that effective therapy for homesickness could bring about in encouraging the completion of secondary education in turn, has the potential to influence current and future Aboriginal populations.. Specifically, German (1997) states that education is directly linked to the students’ ‘communities hope for the future’ (p.36). Importantly, this education is the beginning of students acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills to take control of their own government, allowing them to play active and central roles in defining the future of their communities, likely impacting generations that come after them (German, 1997). Additionally, identifying effective therapy for these students has the potential to influence how counsellors support these students moving forward.

Future Research

Despite calls for high quality secondary education being made available for Aboriginal students within their home communities (Macdonald et al., 2018), boarding schools remain the only option for this education to be accessed for adolescents in most remote communities. As such, future research into how these First Nations students can be better supported is crucial, in order to help mitigate the negative impacts this experience of moving away from their home can have on their mental and physical health (Thurber, 1995). Counsellors within boarding schools have an important role in assisting students to cope with challenges they face (Atli, 2018), the most frequent of which is homesickness (Mander et al., 2015). As such, identifying how counsellors can best provide the support to these students who have moved from their home community to boarding school is of paramount importance in this field.


Homesickness is the primary reason Aboriginal students who leave their home communities to attend secondary boarding schools struggle with the move, and the number one cause for them terminating their education early. To support these students, it is important that counsellors identify ways these students can be supported, to promote mental health and to decrease the numbers of these students terminating their schooling prematurely. Narrative therapy provides a culturally appropriate model that could ease intense feelings of homesickness these students experience, and the various impacts intense homesickness can have, including depression, anxiety, stress and loneliness. This would then assist with the students having greater ability to manage their emotions and therefore complete their education, providing them more opportunities in life, and in their ability to effect change and have an influential voice in the future of their home communities.


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