Australia

Lack of trust fuelling mental health issues in our ethnically diverse neighbourhoods

Exclusive: A landmark new study has found for some of those living in Australia's ethnic melting pots, not trusting those who are different could be having a negative impact.

We're often told to 'love thy neighbour' in order to build a more harmonious society, but when it comes to multicultural communities, it seems concerns about 'others' are rife - and it's impacting peoples' mental health.

A new report by RMIT University has found higher levels of neighbourhood ethnic diversity are associated with poorer mental health outcomes for people living there. 

And it appears it's because they don't trust each other.

Parramasala Multicultural Festival
People watch this year's Parramasala Multicultural Festival parade.

The study, Neighbourhood Ethnic Diversity and Mental Health in Australia, is the first of its kind to empirically examine the effects of ethnic diversity in an area on mental health. It was published this month in the journal Health Economics. 

Based on 16 years of data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, up to 2016, it found a lack of trust in 'others' is having a negative impact. 

Respondents to the HILDA surveys were asked how often they felt "nervous", "down", and "so down in the dumps that nothing could cheer them up". 

Dr Sefa Churchill, a senior research fellow at RMIT who led the study, said coping with difference tends to brings a greater mental load, which “not everyone finds easy or wants to make work”.

"In communities that are quite diverse we tend to see people that are a bit different in different ways, because we do not know them,” he told SBS News.

“It raises some sort of natural anxiety and suspicion about what they are doing because they are ‘different’.

“And that level of anxiety and unsettledness that is associated with this lower levels of trust, tends to hinder mental health."

That lack of trust was the key factor behind poorer mental health outcomes in diverse communities, he said.

0:00
LGBTIQ+ and multicultural communities speak on mental health services
LGBTIQ+ and multicultural communities speak on mental health services

Dr Churchill said it is a natural compulsion to be wary of strangers, and the research shows it is not diversity itself that is the problem, but more likely the lack of trust that often accompanies it.

"If you do not know someone, if someone is different from you, you will not go be willing to go all in, in terms of trust, so from a fundamental perspective as part of nature, trust comes the more you get familiar with someone."

"Trust is the glue that binds social networks, and social networks and feelings of inclusion are important predictors for mental health and wellbeing."

Trust is the glue that binds social networks, and social networks and feelings of inclusion are important predictors for mental health and wellbeing.

- Dr Sefa Churchill, Study Author

But it's not all bad news for those living in Australia's ethnic melting pots. 

When comparing diverse and homogeneous neighbourhoods which both had similar levels of trust, people living in diverse communities had better mental health outcomes.

"Our analysis considered potential scenarios where we have diverse communities and homogeneous communities both with high levels of trust, and the results actually did suggest if you are in a diverse community with higher levels of trust you tend to have better mental health than insular, homogeneous communities,” Dr Churchill said.

Australia is often touted as one of the most diverse countries in the world, with more than a quarter of residents born overseas.

Mohammad Al-Khafaji, CEO of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA) told SBS News: "As in all parts of our society, mental health is a major issue in ethnically diverse communities that desperately needs greater attention". 

"What this study also demonstrates is that programs that promote cultural awareness and understanding make our communities happier and safer.

What this study demonstrates is programs that promote cultural awareness and understanding make our communities happier and safer. 

- Mohammad Al-Khafaji, FECCA

FECCA has partnered with Mental Health Australia and the National Ethnic Disability Alliance to deliver The Embrace Project - a platform raising awareness of mental health and suicide prevention and providing resources and services for those from culturally and linguistic diverse (CALD) backgrounds. 

Mental Health Australia CEO Frank Quinlan told SBS News the project “recognises social isolation and stigma surrounding mental health in culturally and linguistically diverse communities can negatively impact mental health.

It "aims to engage people in CALD communities in a conversation and provide information about what comprises good mental health and where to seek support if needed," he said. 

Dr Churchill says the results of the study show the need for more policies that foster social inclusion and promote awareness of the benefits of diversity. That should help to build trust and reduce the negative effect of diversity on mental health, he said. 

“We need to, at the local level, organise programs and events that bring us together, allow us to communicate, allow us to talk, allow us to know each other and go beyond the differences." 

“The fact that you do not know someone and all that, this will build that level of trust.”

Those seeking mental health support can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, or for crisis support contact  Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch