In recent weeks, our social media feeds were flooded with the simple question, ‘R U OK?’. R U OK? Day occurs annually on September 10 and is a national day of action that raises awareness of mental health and suicide in Australia. It is important because it encourages us to connect with those in our social circle who may be experiencing emotional insecurity, social isolation and loneliness. Now, more than ever, mental health initiatives need to be prioritised and supported. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the number of Victorian women seeking mental health help has reached record levels. However, the evidence shows that migrant and refugee women face intersecting barriers when it comes to accessing support services, including mental health services. When they do access services, too often, the care they receive does not respond to their needs, or understand their experiences of mental health.
As with all groups, migrant women’s mental health is shaped by the social, economic and physical environments in which women live their lives. Migrant and refugee women experience intersecting, structural forms of disadvantage, such as race and gender inequality, that significantly impacts their ability to experience good mental health.
There is growing national evidence that shows gendered and racial discrimination is a significant health risk factor for mental and physical health. A recent Victorian study found that people who frequently experience racism are almost five times more likely than those who do not experience racism to have poor mental health. When it comes to gender inequality, migrant and refugee women are overrepresented in casual and insecure employment, in industries such as aged care, manufacturing, hospitality, cleaning and retail. These are also the industries that have been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. A preliminary report into racism against Asians in Australia found that women are bearing the brunt of heightened racial abuse during COVID-19 having experienced racial slurs, name calling and physical intimidation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainty highlighted and accentuated the gendered inequalities that exist in the Victorian community and health system. Migrant women have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, not only missing out on timely and accurate multilingual information about COVID-19, but are also facing increased risk of infection, experiencing increased social isolation due to the digital divide, significant financial disadvantage and an increased risk of family violence. All of these factors place migrant and refugee women at greater risk of experiencing poor mental health.
While the question RUOK? is a great starting point for meaningful conversations about mental health issues in our community, it is important that we extend these conversations further. We need to understand and recognise the factors that contribute to mental ill-health for migrant and refugee women, as well as what can be done to transform our mental health system, so they can access the support they need.
Migrant and refugee women and their representative organisations have already told us what steps are needed to create a gender equitable, accessible and culturally and linguistically responsive mental health system. It’s vital that we listen and act in order to create environments and systems that empower people to feel better than ‘OK’.
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