Psychologists heal the trauma of war

Transcultural Mental Health senior clinical consultant Hanh Nguyen.

Survivors bearing the mental scars of war, terror and extreme poverty get the expert care and support they need thanks to people like Hanh Nguyen.

Hanh is a senior psychologist with the Transcultural Mental Health Centre at Cumberland Hospital.

She speaks English, French and Vietnamese. In total, the clinicians employed by the service speak around 50 different languages, working alongside NSW mental health services supporting the delivery of culturally-responsive care to people from a multitude of cultural backgrounds.

In her more than 22 years of experience, Hanh has worked with migrants and refugees from around the world who have fled war-torn countries and oppressive regimes to start a new life in Australia.

She frequently sees people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – symptoms of which include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares and flashbacks – coupled with adjustment disorder.

“When you come to a new country and you have no idea about the language, legal system, health system, schools, housing and so forth, it can be overwhelming,” Hanh said.

“You are completely lost. It can be quite difficult to manage yourself in such an alien place and do the everyday things most people take for granted.”

Hanh said family conflict can also arise when Australian culture clashes with the values that older migrants were raised with.

The combination of PTSD and adjustment disorder can lead to family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling addiction and other unhealthy coping mechanisms.

“It’s a consequence of being in a survival mode for so long. All the terrible things you pushed aside can come to the surface when your basic needs are taken care of,” Hanh said.

“I remember a man who was detained in a re-education camp for 10 years prior to coming to Australia. He told me: ‘when I was in my country I was in jail but there was a door. I knew when the door was open I was free. Here there is no door and I don’t know what to do’.”

Through working with mental health services to support culturally responsive care, the Transcultural Mental Health Centre also works towards the empowerment of individuals to build their mental health literacy and to be active partners in decisions about their healthcare.

While her work can be mentally and emotionally exhausting, Hanh stays motivated by the success stories.

One memorable example involved working with a man who was in a forensic jail and had not said a word for several years.

“Because we spoke the same language and were from the same community group and culture, I could get through to him and find out what he wanted,” Hanh said.

“I told him if he wanted to get out, he needed to speak and engage with his treatment team. He understood and started engaging. My intervention made a difference – I don’t ask for more than that.”

If you are in a crisis situation and would like some support, the following organisations can help you:

  • Mental Health Hotline (Open 24 Hours) – 1800 011 511
  • Lifeline – 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue – 1300 22 46 36
  • Men’s Help – 1300 78 99 78