Refugees support each other for better mental health

Mu Gay Htoo was born in a refugee camp on the Myanmar–Thailand border.

At 14, Ms Htoo, with her parents, were able to resettle in Australia as refugees, and the family has called Geelong their home ever since.

A decade on, the young woman has used her experiences as fuel to help others in her community as a Bi-Cultural Community Development Worker at BCYF (Barwon Child, Youth & Family). Her most recent work has seen her empower her own community to better understand mental health.

“It was hard because we didn’t speak English, and we didn’t know there were any services that existed like BCYF, we had never heard of counselling before,” Ms Htoo said of when she and her family first moved to Australia.

“Some refugees have mental health issues, we don’t know the value of sharing and opening up.

“I want to give back to my community, especially to refugees, and to all people who are new arrivals who do not speak English as their first language.

“I want to educate and help others understand how important it is to seek help for mental health, in the same way as seeking help for physical issues.”

Ms Htoo is of Karenni background, the minority ethnic group in Myanmar (formerly Burma). She speaks both Karenni and Karen, and is able to use her experiences, as well as her skills, to help both communities.

“This community had a lot of trauma from Burma, when they fled to the refugee camp. This experience has not left them,” she said.

“When they come to Australia or another country full of happiness and opportunity, there are still pressures for refugees – language barriers, transportation, work and study.”

Ms Htoo has been working with a group of eight Karenni and Karen community members with a new program to improve their knowledge on mental health and the services available to them.

This new program, called ‘Heal The Past, Build The Future’, is designed to discuss mental health in an open forum, removing the stigma, and ensuring communities understand the mental health services available to them in Geelong.

“These community members don’t really ask for anything, they are very vulnerable, and they don’t feel that they have a voice,” BCYF Counsellor/Advocate Matin Ghayour Minaie said.

“Not enough attention is paid to these communities.”

The Karenni and Karen group was asked questions about how they understood and define mental health, and if there was any stigma in their wider community. They were also asked if they knew about the mental health services available in the community, and how often they used them.

“After we heard from them, we started the conversation to give a better understanding of mental health, and what to do if they or someone in their community needed help,” Ms Ghayour Minaie said.

“These eight people are being supported to go back into their community and share
awareness and information about mental health.”

Since the inception of ‘Heal The Past, Build The Future’, there have been more referrals to BCYF’s counselling service from members of both the Karenni and Karen communities, indicating early signs of success – those who need help are asking for it.

BCYF hopes to increase the program to other CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) communities moving forward.

Refugee Week runs from June 20-26, and the week is a celebration of the wonderful ways in which people from refugee backgrounds enrich their new communities.

This significant week, which started in Australia in 1986 and is now a global celebration, is a chance for ordinary people to welcome, thank and celebrate their neighbours who have come seeking safety.

“We are all human beings,” Ms Ghayour-Minaie said.

“This is what we all need to do, to make a better life for everyone, to make a better
community, to help each other have a better life in Geelong, and in Australia.”

Refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced torture and other traumatic events in their country of origin, or while fleeing their country, can access torture and trauma counselling at BCYF.

For more information on BCYF’s refugee and asylum seeker counselling, visit:

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