The aftermath of Melbourne’s housing tower lockdown: ‘I don't know if I'm ever going to be the same again’

A sign at one of the public housing towers on Racecourse Road in Flemington, Melbourne. Source: AAP

The hard lockdown on the nine public housing towers in North Melbourne, Flemington and Kensington has ceased, except for one tower. Despite residents now able to leave their homes, the impact is still being felt.

Panic attacks, traumatic flashbacks, and heavy anxiety are some of the experiences residents of Melbourne's public housing towers are going through, after the lockdown.

The hard lockdown in Flemington, North Melbourne and Kensington has ended for all public housing towers -- except for the 33 Alfred Street building in North Melbourne. Now residents are under the same stage three restrictions as the rest of Metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire.

Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton explained on Friday the decision to continue the hard lockdown at 33 Alfred Street building.

"We need to recognise that there might be 20 to 25 per cent of individuals in that particular tower who end up developing coronavirus and potentially more," Sutton said.

The impact of the lockdown has weighed on Abdi, who is a father to a young family. He returned to Australia three years ago after spending a year more or less detained in Somalia. The hard lockdown imposed by Victoria's Premier Daniel Andrews has brought back some memories Abdi's tried to forget.

Abdi, who grew up in Melbourne, was sent to Somalia several years ago to a place his parents thought was a boarding school where he could learn Qur'an. But when he arrived it was a completely different experience than he anticipated.

"I was locked up [in Somalia] for about a year. I spent like about two months inside a toilet and a couple of months inside solitary confinement. I was getting beat up every day," Abdi told The Feed.

On his return to Australia, he says it was "the happiest day of my life", and that he was ready to bask in the freedoms and rights he grew up believing in.

In the years since, he has married, had children, and focused on his '9 to 5' -- as he puts it. The memories of nights in Somalia were behind him, he had important things to do: to look after his kids and pay bills.

"I still haven't dealt either, spoken to anyone about these issues...I just buried them in," he said.

But on the night of July 4, when the hard lockdown was announced, and residents weren't allowed to leave their apartments, memories began to rush back into Abdi's consciousness.

The next morning he remembers, "walking up and down the corridors," Abdi said, "I didn't know what to do, man."

A public housing tower in North Melbourne.
A public housing tower in North Melbourne.

As the days passed, his condition worsened. The heaviness of time inside his small North Melbourne flat he shares with his wife and three kids, began to weigh on him.

"I've been getting these feelings, these flashbacks. I can't sleep at night now. I shake in the middle of the night because I remember me being back in Somalia locked up," he said.

"I want to cry to you right now. I probably already shed enough tears. I have no more tears to shed."

Abdi has tried reaching out to the Department of Health and Human Services for mental health care but says he hasn't heard from them.

"I don't know who to talk to. I don't know if I'm ever going to be the same again," Abdi said.

At the moment, all he has is memories of his time in Somalia. Abdi is recalling times when he saw people die right in front of him -- he's finding it difficult to process.

"I've seen people get shot, roommates, people I used to share rooms with getting beaten to death," he said.

"I never spoke about any of these things, I buried them. I get locked up for five days, all of a sudden, I feel like I'm in the exact same situation that I escaped from."

A resident of one of the towers holds a sign with the word 'jail' on it.
A resident of one of the towers holds a sign with the word 'jail' on it.
SBS News

'I was at a point where I felt like I just want to run out and if they arrest me it is what it is'

Asia Ibrahim was in her flat in North Melbourne, working from home. She had set aside Saturday, July 4, the day of the hard lockdown announcement, to be a workday.

She dropped off her one-year-old daughter to her mother's flat at the beginning of the day. But in the afternoon her sister, who lives in 33 Alfred Street, called her.

"I got a phone call from my sister saying, 'oh hey we're going to see [you] in five days'," Asia told The Feed.

The time inside her building in North Melbourne has left Asia feeling she isn't able to do anything -- let alone run her business.

"I mean it is changing my mind state. Sometimes I'm blank, I feel like I'm trapped in a box. I feel like I'm trapped in my own mind," she said.

Asia is a young working mother who still is yet to see her daughter since Saturday, July 4. The five days of hard lockdown in the towers, she says, worsened her already poor mental wellbeing.

"I have prenatal and postnatal depression that I'm still dealing with. You know, so just being stuck in a high rise makes me second guess, like, my life," she said.

Asia Ibrahim
Asia looking out the window during the hard lockdown of the public housing towers.

Asia suffers from claustrophobia, something that was compounded by days she spent locked down inside her North Melbourne flat. She explained to The Feed that she is prone to having panic attacks at the best of times, and with something as simple as driving her car.

"I mean I get so anxious that being separated from my kids already is bad enough," Asia said.

Unlike Abdi, she has received some care from health workers during the hard lockdown. She was given medication to help with her anxiety and panic attacks, after a consultation from a doctor via DHHS.

But her nights are still sleepless, she thinks about her young one-year-old daughter who is staying with her mother in the still hard locked down 33 Alfred Street building.

"I know she's in good hands, but as a mother, I want to be there to know that my child is doing okay," Asia said.

Asia Ibrahim
Asia holding her one-year-old daughter.

But even though Asia's building is no longer in hard lockdown, she remains indoors. She has tested positive for COVID-19, which will make any reunion with her daughter further out of reach.

Prior to learning she had COVID-19 or had any symptoms, on the final days of the hard lockdown, Asia grew tired and thought about making a run for it.

"I was at a point where I felt like I just want to run out and if they arrest me it is what it is," Asia said.

Mental health impacts: PTSD, flashbacks, and depression

There are immediate, short, and longer impacts of the hard lockdown, according to Professor Jayashri Kulkarni. The immediate is concerns surrounding food, child safety, and necessary medication.

"After a certain period of time, the impact starts to differentiate," said Prof Kulkarni, a psychiatrist, and the director of the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre in Melbourne.

The points of differences Prof Kulkarni outlines are life experiences, whether someone is a refugee, an asylum seeker, or has experienced imprisonment or detention before.

"This could have quite an acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with flashbacks of previous experiences and having a sense of being a prisoner," Prof Kulkarni told The Feed.

The first experiences of panic Prof Kulkarni says can reawaken PTSD, while the middle phases and later reactions may cause a sense of claustrophobia.

"The next part of it is usually a bit more, that quieting down of the anger into a sadness," she said.

Prof Kulkarni says this could be damaging for people who have a history of mental ill-health, particularly depression.

"They could then have a relapse of depression or experienced depression for the first time," she said.

"Anybody who has needed support has been offered it or has been able to access it"

The Victorian government coronavirus mental health package of $59.4 million will see public housing residents referred to mental health clinicians.

A Department of Human and Health Services told The Feed there has been proactive outreach by mental health professionals to residents within 33 Alfred St, North Melbourne -- as well as the eight other public housing towers.

"Anybody who has needed support has been offered it or has been able to access it. If there are any concerns we're encouraging residents to contact the Inner North Coronavirus (COVID-19) Response Line," a DHHS spokesperson said.

There have also been two field emergency management units established in both North Melbourne and Flemington staffed by health workers including GPS, nurses who are able to provide onsite care.

DHHS told The Feed they are working closely with community groups and local health organisations who have established relationships with residents in the housing estates.

The community mental health response

The DHHS aren't the only ones offering help. Voices from the Blocks -- a coalition of residents, family, and community members from the public housing estates -- have set-up a volunteer-run counseling service for residents in the public housing towers. It's so people like Abdi can have another path of assistance.

Tigist Kebede, a counselor and community member, has led the emergency community response. However, Kebede told The Feed because the effort is largely from volunteers and community members they have a shortage of capacity.

"Because of the lack of infrastructure and the lack of adequate support, volunteers are doing the best that they can," Kebede said.

"So some of the work that I do is taking that burden off the volunteer. And utilising my networks [within the community] and outside."

Volunteers at the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency in North Melbourne, Monday, July 6, 2020.
Volunteers at the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency in North Melbourne, Monday, July 6, 2020.

Kebede has been in contact with mental health workers who have put their hand up to help residents who are in urgent need of care.

"They [are] basically trying to compensate for what the government hasn't been doing," she said.

The situation has re-connected networks and established new ones -- it's the one positive Kebede can point to.

"I can speak from the mental health perspective," she said, "[the] networks are becoming even stronger. And I'm aware of even more mental health workers...who had potentially just been in the community."

"So our own networking and the strength of community has solidified."

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