Australia's trauma counsellors seeing influx in calls for help from the Afghan community

Seeing traumatic images of the crisis in Afghanistan while experiencing COVID-19 lockdowns in Australia has created "the perfect storm" for negative mental health, say those supporting the community.

Nooria Mehraby looks directly at the camera while sitting at a park bench in Sydney.

Nooria Mehraby came to Australia as a refugee almost 30 years ago with her husband and two young children. Source: Lucy Murray/SBS News

Nooria Mehraby cannot find the words to describe the depths of sadness she felt watching the Taliban take over the home she fled almost 30 years ago this week.

The Sydney-based mental health clinician told SBS News she has barely slept and is still in shock.

Her pride is hurt and she feels exhausted. After all, she says, it has been four decades of war for the people of Afghanistan.

“When I see now Afghanistan, I say to myself 'there is nothing left to lose.' It is devastating. It is really painful.” 

“When we see pictures on TV now, it is an attack to our identity, to our dignity, to our pride. Especially taking down the Afghan flag is so intrusive and painful for many Afghans.”

The Afghan Australian community is made up of many different ethnic groups, but they are united in their collective distress as they watch what is unfolding in their homeland, collectively holding their breath for what approach the new leaders will take.

Australian torture and trauma counsellors say levels of extreme anxiety amongst the community have more than doubled since US troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan in May.

And there are now fears the Taliban takeover has only worsened the impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt for some.


“What we have seen is a doubling of suicidal ideation from three per cent to six per cent, a doubling of people with severe anxiety, from close to 30 per cent to close to 70 per cent, and that is something that we haven't seen before,” STARTTS CEO and clinical psychologist Jorge Aroche said.

STARTTS is the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors and works with refugee families. This week it held a crisis meeting with Afghan community leaders to work out how best to support the community. 

We have seen a doubling of suicidal ideation. - Jorge Aroche, STARTTS
While it is normal to feel grief and loss at such a time, psychologists are worried about the impact it has while large swaths of the community are in lockdown.

“There is a lot of triggers at the moment, of course seeing the situation in the news, but also living in a context that in many ways resembles a situation they have gone through, is a constant reminder,” Mr Aroche said.

“[Lockdown] also means people have less access to the things that make them resilient … and all of these things are coming together and really creating a perfect storm from a mental health point of view.”

Concern for the next generation

Dr Mehraby lives in north-western Sydney on the fringe of the city’s COVID-19 hotspots.

She trained as a medical doctor before coming to Australia as a refugee and acutely understands the need for stay-at-home orders and social distancing, but said the impact of the pandemic means the traditional ways to support one another are no longer available.

“If it was normal circumstances, people would have gathered, they would have prayed together, they would have shared food, they would have cried together, they would have talked together, but in these circumstances, it is not possible,” she said. 

Her worry now is for the children of refugee families who cannot even escape to school.

An empty playground outside a Sydney school.
Schools have been closed for almost two months in Sydney, as the city battles the highly infectious Delta strain of COVID-19. Source: AAP

“School could have been a safe, escape zone for children because they could have been distracted, but they are at home with parents that are distressed and they are grieving,” she said.

“The schools need to be aware of this … teaching home-schooling is difficult for anyone, but if someone is a refugee and if someone is at that level of distress, it is a really, really a big challenge for them.”

Dr Mehraby said the best way to support the Afghan Australian community at the moment, is to acknowledge their pain and validate it.

“We need to reach out at least to acknowledge because most Afghans feel like their pain has not been acknowledged,” she said.

“It is over four decades of war and misery in Afghanistan and Afghans are lost and exhausted. To be honest, they just want peace.”

If this story has raised any issues for you, help is available at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or you can contact the  

Readers seeking support with mental health can also contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at

supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

5 min read
Published 19 August 2021 at 3:19pm
By Lucy Murray