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Working with 'desperate' refugees on Manus inspired this psychologist to focus on youths

Psychologist Queenie Wu worked for four week on Manus Island.

Working under extreme pressure on Manus Island where asylum seekers and refugees were “totally desperate” inspired Melbourne senior psychologist Queenie Wu to focus her energies on assisting troubled youths.

Queenie Wu has gone from studying in Australia as an international student from China, to working with asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island, to running her own clinics in Melbourne assisting troubled youths.

In 2012, she opened her own practice in Melbourne’s western and CBD regions, offering patients of all ages a range of counselling and psychological services to guide them through life’s challenges.

She told SBS Mandarin that she decided to focus on the mental health of the younger generation due to her own experiences in providing assistance to asylum seekers and refugees at various detention centres, including the Manus Regional Processing Centre.

Queenie Wu
Queenie Wu

When Ms Wu graduated from Deakin University in 2010, she was employed at the Department of Justice in Victoria, where her focus was criminal psychology. 

"Apparently there are hierarchies in the prison, and those in the bottom of the pyramid are who I was dealing with. They belong to 'special protection unit', separated from mainstream convicts for protection," she said. 

"My responsibilities were to help them improve their ways of thinking and behaving, in order to eventually lower the crime rate." 

It was during this period that she realised that prison inmates either had experienced abuse by their parents or grew up with family members who were addicted to drugs.

"After spending a long time in criminal psychology, you know that people of this age can hardly be changed,” she said.

“Significant improvements are much easily achievable if they are intervened earlier--before they fully develop their own characters."

In 2013 and 2014, Ms Wu provided specialised mental health care to asylum seekers at onshore and offshore detention centres, including the facility on Manus Island.

Queenie Wu
Queenie Wu on Manus Island (supplied)
Queenie Wu

After four weeks of working on Manus, she had to seek professional mentorship services to ease her mind due to the things she had witnessed.

She admitted that she decided to seek help after resolving that her abilities as a psychologist at the facility were so limited.

"There's no way I can give them any hope," she said. 

"Refugees are different from prisoners because the later know when they will be released. But for refugees, they see no future in their life. They don't know when they will be released." 

Queenie Wu
Queenie Wu

She recalled witnessing the process of how adult asylum seekers and refugees gradually lost hope and even started to self-harm.

"It is total desperation - they cannot see their family, nor can they come to Australia."

Despite the difficulties, she tried her best to restore hope to the inmates, so that they can continue their lives without losing hope or hurting themselves. 

With that experience now in her rear-view, Ms Wu said she understood the importance of connecting an individual to their networks – including to their families, schools and communities.

She said a collaborative working alliance was crucial for any meaningful therapeutic work. 

She said many Australian parents were struggling to have conversations with their adolescent children, recalling how one patient, a teenager of Asian heritage, expressed a desire to self-harm.

The teen’s dilemma was that he faced difficulties in communication with his parents, who spoke very little English.

In this situation, Ms Wu said the parents needed to understand the importance of properly handling their child’s temper.

"The best thing is to cuddle them when they are angry. That will give them the information that the anger is not a terrible thing, and can be handled,” she said. 

"Language only takes 30 per cent of human communication. So as long as you pay attention to your body language and your tone, the language barrier is not as bad as you would think." 

With Ms Wu’s help, the relationship between the teen and his parents improved. 

It was an experience she knew very well, having been an international student and witnessing others suffering from depression.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day online and on 13 11 14. Other services include the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline (for people aged five to 25) on 1800 55 1800. More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.

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