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Safe, seen and respected: The importance of culturally appropriate mental health information for migrants in Australia

John and Job.

“I’ve been working in the community sector since I was 15, and there’s always this misconception that young African men don’t want to talk about mental health, but they actually do. They just don’t have a space to do so.”

This is what Red Cross Australia Bilingual Health Educator Aza Ismail has found during her extensive experience working with East African migrants in Australia.

Young African men can often be reluctant to seek mental health care due to traditional expectations around masculinity and the many barriers faced as migrants in Australia to access health services.

Such barriers include a lack of knowledge about available services, the stigma around mental health and help-seeking, language barriers, and a lack of culturally competent care.

In fact, many of Ms Ismail’s participants have said they don’t know any psychologists or therapists who look like them, and they are left feeling as though no one will understand them.

Ms Ismail has found that providing culturally appropriate information in a safe space is vital to change these attitudes and destigmatise the taboo around mental health for young African men.

Culturally appropriate resources can help migrant communities to improve mental health literacy, develop help-seeking behaviours and increase trust in mental health services, ultimately leading to better health outcomes.

She has seen first-hand the impact of culturally appropriate services in her current work delivering mental health education sessions to the East African community through the national Health in My Language project, which is being led by the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health.

“Initially, the men who attended the sessions said that they don’t talk about mental health and they never speak to therapists because it’s not useful,” she said.

“But in the second session, they began asking questions and starting discussions without me having to prompt them.

“And by the third session, they were asking what other mental health topics they can learn about!

“It was amazing to see them be vulnerable and share their experiences with mental health in the African community.

“You don’t see that often from African men, and you don’t see them ask for help in that way.”

Ms Ismail goes beyond cultural awareness to instead deliver culturally responsive health education, allowing her to develop a higher level of trust and understanding with the young men in her sessions.

“Providing a safe space and being candid by sharing my own story about myself and my family, allowed a space for them to learn at their own pace,” she said.

Burundian participant John Nkurunziza, 21, said the sessions have been very helpful in shedding light on topics that otherwise aren’t talked about very much among African men.

“I know in the African communities [mental health] is definitely stigmatised,” he said.

“Not many people open up about it, and if you do, then you’re probably seen as inadequate or not so quote, unquote, manly.”

He said the sessions helped him to express himself and learn ways to counter negative emotions, as well as gain an understanding of the different services available.

“It’s a bit of a roundtable discussion, so that definitely helps,” he said.

“If it were to be more so just observing someone else speaking, it wouldn’t be as helpful.”

Congolese participant Job Zahinda, 22, said the interactive nature of the sessions helped him to learn about mental health in a way that was more accessible and easier to comprehend.

“When I first came to Australia, I never knew what depression or anxiety was. To me, I knew two feelings, happy and sad,” he said.

“And when I’m watching a video or reading an article, I wouldn’t really understand what they mean.

“But engaging [in the sessions] and getting everyone else’s point of view helped me get a better understanding. So it was way easier to access here than online.”

He said this has had a profound impact on the way he views mental health and the importance of opening up to people.

“My first step will be providing everyone else close to me with a safe place for them to talk,” he said.

“And when the time comes when I find myself in a situation where I need to talk to somebody or express myself, I feel comfortable knowing it’s not a bad thing to do.”

By delivering culturally appropriate health education, Ms Ismail is ensuring everyone has equitable access to mental health information and is helping break down the stigma around mental health for young African men.

“Having worked with the African communities that I’ve worked with so far, they’ve expressed how nice it is to get information from someone who looks like them and understands their background and their struggles,” she said.

“It’s so important because you make people feel safe, seen and respected.”

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