Why Victoria’s migrant communities are in need of more mental health support

Santino Atem Deng and familyCommunity leaders and mental health groups say new funding for mental health services during the coronavirus pandemic needs to include targeted multicultural support, amid fears many new migrants are still not accessing mainstream services. Here, SBS News interviews Santino Atem Deng, who has run several workshops on Family development in Shepparton.

A professional counsellor in Melbourne and father-of-four, Santino Atem Deng knows firsthand the stress of a Stage 4 lockdown.

He works from his home in the city’s west where he lives with wife Aweeng and their children, aged from eight weeks to six years.

He also volunteers his time to buy groceries for isolated families and provide mental health support to those struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Those who are really struggling are those for whom language is a major barrier, maybe cultural barrier, maybe lack of knowledge about service provision and lack of knowing where to access information,” he told SBS News.


Santino Atem Deng and family
Santino Atem Deng has run family development workshops in Shepparton on several occasions

Santino and Aweeng were both born in Sudan. He moved to Australia from New Zealand and she came from Canada.

Santino is a member of the African Australian Family and Parenting Support Service, which is giving help to those struggling under the restrictions. Currently, almost 400 families have reached out seeking support.

One of the hardest aspects for newly established African communities, he says, is not being able to have visitors in your home.

“We came from a very collectivist culture and this collectivist culture means we draw support from one another and you give each other support as much as you can,” he said.

He says the restrictions also remove a mental health safety net at a time when the community needs it the most.


Santino Atem Deng and family
Deng with his children

Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia CEO Mohammad Al-Khafaji says such hardships are faced by all of society but have been amplified for migrant communities, particularly for people who lack established networks of family and workplace support and don’t qualify for welfare payments.

“We know a lot of our communities have been excluded from JobKeeper, JobSeeker, and there are no jobs out there for those with work rights, so there is a lot of anxiety and stress for migrant communities at the moment,” he said.

Mental health helplines across the country have reported increases in calls in recent weeks. Lifeline has reported a 25 per cent jump in calls compared to last year’s figures, receiving a call every 30 seconds on average.

Mental health research group the Black Dog Institute estimates between 25 and 33 per cent of the community will experience high levels of stress during the pandemic, while research from the University of Sydney predicts a 14 per cent increase in suicides this year.


Santino Atem Deng
Here, SBS News interviews Santino Atem Deng, who has run several workshops on Family development in Shepparton.

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