"We are having a break through with this…I’m so excited."
Collette Beck

21 Jun 2018 - 1:39 PM  UPDATED 11 Sep 2018 - 2:07 PM

Torture, trauma and losing family members through conflict are just some of the elements of a refugee’s migratory experience. Fleeing war-torn countries, escaping life-threatening persecution, hardship and multiple displacements contribute to the higher risk of mental health vulnerability for migrants and refugees. 

Sydney Psychologist Hend Saab who works at the St George Mental Health Service says mindfulness is proving to be a valuable tool in treating trauma experienced by some migrant and refugee groups.

Part of this was because mindfulness techniques were able to circumvent the stigma attached to mental health interventions and were seen to be compatible with migrant cultures and beliefs.

Mindfulness is seen as compatible with migrant cultures and beliefs.

The practice of mindfulness involves getting patients to become self-aware and attentive to the thoughts and experiences they are having in the present moment. These can be developed through meditation, breathing and other techniques. 

Saab says stigma, fear of being judged by their community, confidentiality and trust are often major barriers to CALD communities seeking help for mental health challenges and can result in crisis situations.

Prior to accessing help, many migrants will have tried to resolve things by using spiritual guidance or traditional spiritual healers compatible with their cultural and spiritual beliefs.

“CBT and other behavioural therapy are limited when it comes to working with CALD communities because they don't address the emotional side of things,” Saab says. 

Saab's work in the field inspired her to translate Russ Harris’s Mindfulness Skills (Volume 1) CD into Arabic. She found the CD was effective because it was seen as compatible with participants’ spiritual beliefs, despite having its roots in Buddhist teachings.

We are having a break through with this…I’m so excited.

After five weeks of using the CD, participants reported an improvement in their anxiety, depression and stress levels and at 12 weeks further improvements were reported.

“That taboo around mental health, around seeking help and psychological interventions, we are having a break through with this…I’m so excited, and it’s very rewarding,” Saab said. 

Mariam Issa, a refugee based in Melbourne, says a culture of shame around accessing mental health interventions made it difficult for her to ask for help. 

“There are barriers to getting help… this shaming space, if you talk to someone, it means you are not mentally stable,” she said.

Issa and her family fled the civil war in Somalia and resettled in Kenya. They were later displaced from Kenya, forcing them to migrate to Australia. Issa believes there is an intersect between spirituality and mindfulness, “along with my traditional Islamic culture, it [mindfulness] has changed my life.”

With her family scattered across six different countries, Issa arrived in Australia pregnant with her fifth child. She had no support, with birth of her fifth child fuelling a bout of post-natal depression.

“When I arrived here, everything I knew about myself was disrupted; it did not make sense anymore… when I was in this space of depression, mindfulness helped me understand that we are thinking beings, once we connect to these thoughts, these thoughts form an emotion,” Issa says. 

She goes on to describe a deeper understanding of life that mindfulness has afforded her. “I started to understand that my thoughts created my emotions and feelings, these feelings then informed my attitude… then, at last, I realised my reality was a choice. I decide what kind of life I want to live.”

Issa has undergone a significant journey of healing and growth. She opened her home and has transformed it into a community garden. She is also the founder of RAW, which stands for Resilient Aspiring Women, where she “aims to support women’s resilience through intercultural dialogue and exchange facilitated by activities of storytelling, cooking and gardening.”

Issa has incorporated mindfulness into her everyday life and begins each day with gratitude and an intention for the day.

Saab’s research found participants could incorporate mindfulness in their everyday lives and these techniques could help empower communities impacted by trauma, loss and disconnection.

If this story raises issues for you, contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36.

Two-part documentary series How ‘Mad’ Are You? airs over two weeks, starting Thursday 11 October at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.

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