Decline of mental health among migrant women during pandemic

By Indira Laisram
Representative image // Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

When Danai Chanakira, 21, migrated to Australia in 2010 after living in Namibia and South Africa, she recalls a racist encounter. “At that time, I didn’t know what that meant. But in the years to come, I would soon realise it was one of the many things that had affected my mental health,” she says.

And nobody expected what the pandemic would do to mental health. Chanakira believes going through isolation and lockdowns amplified those existing problems of mental health.

“The biggest sign that my mental health was deteriorating was when I felt very unmotivated to do everyday tasks such as work and school. But on top of that I was very unmotivated to do the simplest of tasks such as getting out of bed, making myself food, communicating with my family, and taking care of my appearance and hygiene. It also became hard for me to find enjoyment in the things I used to enjoy,” she tells The Indian Sun.

What is worse, says Chanakira, for women from cultural and linguistic diverse communities was the difficulties in accessing health information. She cites the example of a close family member who needed professional help. “We didn’t know where to find that help and it wasn’t until she enrolled into university when she took advantage of the free of charge psychologist that was offered for students,” she reveals.

Chanakira was among the 14,000 women respondents who took part in the 2022 Jean Hailes National Women’s Health Survey that revealed 70 per cent of migrant women could not afford to see a doctor or a health professional.

Danai Chanakira // Pic supplied

A stark finding from the survey was this fact that half were unaware of how to access health services. The survey showed that one of the biggest barriers to health equity was access to health information in language. Over 55 per cent of women from non-English speaking backgrounds could not find health information in their own language compared to 29 per cent of all women.

Chanakira says the options to access trusted information in other languages is limited and there are no translators freely available.

The survey also showed that nearly half of women from non-English speaking backgrounds said their financial situation had declined since the pandemic began compared to 32 per cent of all women. More than half (55 per cent) said their mental health had declined since COVID-19 compared to 40 per cent of all women.

“Generally, young women—at the start of their career and also being disadvantaged by the gender pay gap—do not have a lot of money to seek help for their mental health and will prioritise other things such as rent, bills, and necessities over a visit to their doctor. When I look around me there are so many young that are struggling mentally due to going through Covid, and feeling isolated for long extended of times, daily life stressors and money,” adds Chanakira.

“In addition to that, a lot of women will not be very forthcoming about their mental health due to the stigma that still surrounds it. Personally, I struggle with mental health and I do hesitate to be open about my struggles due to possibly being discriminated against,” she says.

This is something authorities are acknowledging. “We know moving to Australia can impact heavily on migrant women’s resilience as they are confronted by isolation and unfamiliar systemic barriers that result in poorer health outcomes,” says Mary Ann Geronimo, Director of Policy – Health and Ageing, at FECCA, the national peak body representing Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. “We need to ensure that this group is not disadvantaged, and we need to aim for better health equity.”

Research fellow Dr Prerna Varma // Pic supplied

Research fellow in psychology Dr Prerna Varma says the Jean Hailes Survey is consistent with what is being observed globally. “Women in culturally and linguistically diverse groups are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. It is critical to identify populations that are at an increased risk and provide them dedicated services,” she says. “We need to provide our communities with more accessible support.”

The pandemic, she believes, has put the focus “on how we approach mental health now and that has given us the opportunity to explore for different groups coping and experiencing mental health”.

Varma, who has been working on projects related to COVID and mental health from 60 plus countries since 2020, suggests the need to improve public health messaging by providing more culturally sensitive support to women from different communities. “It obviously depends on one’s circumstances but I would like to focus on the three pillars of health—exercise, diet and sleep—as the starting point of improving one’s physical and mental health. And also factors like reaching out. It’s quite evident from the Jean Hailes Survey that women might not know when to reach out for support and professional help.”

She points out to some important resources with plain language available with Jean Hailes. “If you don’t know how to approach your mental health right now, you can look at these resources as the next step.”

The 2022 Jean Hailes National Women’s Health Survey was conducted in March-May, and for the first time was translated into Chinese (simplified), Arabic and Vietnamese. “The results from the National Women’s Health Survey show that there is much more work to be done when it comes to improving outcomes for women from non-English speaking backgrounds in Australia,” sums up Costa Vasili, Founder and CEO of Ethnolink, which specialises in translation services.

Click here for more on Jean Hailes survey and resources

The Indian Sun acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government.

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