Melbourne psychiatrist Dr Manjula O'Connor believes systemic change is needed to combat isolation, financial dependence and family violence for women in South Asian migrant communities.

By Colin MacGillivray

CITY of Whittlesea community leaders hope lessons learned from a cluster of suicides among South Asian women can propel the municipality to become a national leader in migrant mental health and family violence outcomes.

The Coroners Court of Victoria last week released findings relating to four suicides by South Asian women aged between 29 and 40 in Whittlesea during 2018, with another two suspected suicides from 2019 still under investigation.

Coroner Audrey Jamieson said the cluster represented an ‘elevated frequency of suicides’ among South Asian women in the City of Whittlesea, with only one such death recorded between 2009 and 2015.

Ms Jamieson found several similarities between the four cases, noting South Asian women living in Australia were more likely to be affected by issues such as social isolation and financial dependence.

There were suggestions of family violence in two of the cases, but Ms Jamieson was unable to establish conclusively that it had been a contributing factor.

She recommended the Department of Health and Human Services ‘review current services supporting the health and wellbeing of South Asian women in the City of Whittlesea’ while continuing to liaise with health service providers and stakeholder groups.

Ms Jamieson also recommended police allocate family violence investigation units to investigate suspected intentional deaths of women from culturally and linguistically diverse, CALD, backgrounds in the City of Whittlesea.

Whittlesea Community Legal Service principal solicitor Chris Howse said police would need to form a key part of any community response, as it was police who first alerted authorities to the cluster of suicides.

Mr Howse said Mill Park Sergeant Damian Lehmann noticed the pattern of deaths in 2018 and raised the issue with his superiors, leading to the formation of the Crossroads to Community Wellbeing Group – a collection of Whittlesea community leaders and agencies aiming to reduce social isolation and increase access to support services for South Asian women.

Mr Howse, who is part of the Crossroads group, said Sgt Lehmann had provided a model for how police should interact with CALD communities.

“Newswise, it has been well documented both within Australia and overseas, the problems we have with systemic racism,” he said.

“Here are police on the ground in Whittlesea who said, ‘what’s going on here?’ and had the sensitivity and compassion to figure out that something should be done.

“They took it up to the regional commander, who backed them 100 per cent and took it to us, and then we got the Coroner’s Court involved.

“This is an example of systemic tolerance and systemic compassion that is something of a model, especially when people are so critical – and quite rightly so in many cases – of police action.

“What police are doing here in Whittlesea is a credit to Victoria Police and a model for police to follow in other states, it seems to me.”

Mr Howse last week wrote to DHHS secretary Kym Peake, urging her to follow up on the recommendations in Ms Jamieson’s report.

City of Whittlesea administrator chair Lydia Wilson said council had also been in contact with the department and would continue to advocate for the State Government to fund family violence and mental health support services in the municipality.

“On behalf of the City of Whittlesea, I would like to firstly express my condolences to the families who have been devastated by the deaths of the four women investigated in this report,” she said.

“We will continue to work very hard with local community health organisations, family violence services, Victoria Police and legal services to support vulnerable women living in our community.

“Over the past year, the Crossroads group has worked in collaboration with local agencies and organisations who have received short-term funding to trial prevention programs with significant results.

“We need ongoing funding for culturally specific, localised, community-led programs and services that address the specific antecedents to why these women took their own lives.”

A DHHS spokesperson said the department had ‘begun working on a co-ordinated response across the local area health network, Whittlesea council and local service providers’ to ensure the community can access the help they need’.

Melbourne psychiatrist and Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health, ACHRH, executive director Dr Manjula O’Connor said co-operation between all levels of government, as well as service providers, was needed to combat isolation and poor mental health outcomes within migrant communities.

“The coroner did not mention that we can have a strong preventative action if we support the women before they leave their home country,” she said.

“When they apply for a visa, they can be given information about what the rights and contact resources are around family violence, mental health and easy access to GPs in this country.

“What I’ve found from talking to hundreds of women over the years is that once they arrive here, many of them have no idea where to go or what the role of a GP is.

“They are the easiest source to confide any problem in; almost everybody needs to see a doctor at some stage in their life.

“We should be providing all migrants awareness of what the cultural differences are between their country and Australia around gender relations, the laws of family violence and access to mental health.”

Dr O’Connor said ACHRH had operated successful workshops educating migrant communities about Australian family violence laws and expectations, and how they could differ from other countries.

“We have also run community participatory programs, which are an amazing way of bringing community members together to workshop and turn stories from their everyday life into plays, which are then performed in front of a community audience who are asked to comment on what the performance is showing them,” she said.

“We’ve been doing it around family violence and it has produced a significant impact on help-seeking behaviour. The main aim is to reduce stigma, because stigma and shame around seeking help in mental health is a very strong problem that needs to be addressed.

“At the same time, we need to engage communities and community members, create community leaders and create male and female champions of change so that individuals take the lead and push it forward.”

Dr O’Connor said she hoped the coroner’s findings would give the State Government impetus to create systemic change and better fund migrant support programs.

“We certainly hope [these programs will become more widespread] because the Crossroads group that has been formed is very influential and has professionals involved from many aspects of the community,” she said.

“We could have a significant experiment to show that if we create a good, integrated, systemic response, we may be able to have an impact on the numbers of family violence, which in turn will have an impact on the numbers of suicides and people reaching out for mental health services.

“It is amazing, the work of Sgt Damian Lehmann, who brought this to public view.

“I always knew we had a problem with this, but we were not able to pin it down.

“But this has pinned it down, and that allows us to start work in Whittlesea that we hope will be an example for the rest of Victoria, and maybe even Australia.”

Anyone impacted by family violence can call Safe Steps on 1800 015 188. In an emergency call triple zero. People can also visit www.respectvictoria.vic.gov.au to learn more about short-term accommodation for family violence victim survivors who don’t feel safe isolating or recovering from coronavirus at home.

People who need somebody to talk to, can contact LIFELINE on 13 11 14, or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

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