Afghan refugees break mental health stigma with podcast

·3-min read
Diego Fedele/AAP PHOTOS

An imam, a psychologist and a refugee caseworker step behind the mic and the result is a unique Australian podcast - all spoken in Dari.

Over sweet cups of tea and free-flowing conversation, as part of a men's support group, Mirwais Janbaz saw his father candidly sharing feelings he had not expressed before in the company of other men his age.

It gave him the idea for a podcast where such private feelings could be discussed in a public medium for an under-served audience of Dari speakers in Australia.

Dari is one of Afghanistan's two official languages and has Persian origins.

The six-episode podcast 'Healthy Mind, Healthy Life' is produced by the Southern Migrant and Refugee Centre in Dandenong, Melbourne where hundreds of Afghan refugees have settled in recent years.

"This podcast is a good way to send a message in Dari ... as most of the Afghans who have arrived here have a mental health issue because of the situation in Afghanistan that affects them," Mr Janbaz told AAP.

He said it was aimed at the older generation of new arrivals because it gives them a vocabulary for mental health in their own language by letting guests from their own community talk about their private mental health struggles.

"If you can't speak English, it's very difficult to be in society or go through the challenges they are facing in terms of cultural shock".

Mr Janbaz described the difficult time living in Pakistan as a refugee for 20 years after escaping the Taliban in 1996 with his family.

But he said sharing his story on the podcast initiated a dialogue over the airwaves with others of the refugee experience.

He said people from his own community started sharing it online with others back in Afghanistan and in the US.

Dr Caroline Lenette who has conducted extensive research into digital storytelling and refugee communities says the medium which has flourished in the last decade is empowering.

"Creating digital stories presents opportunities to exercise agency, (for refugees)" the University of New South Wales academic told AAP.

"This is even more important if there are no pathways to exercising agency in other areas of their lives, such as being at the mercy of visa determination and detention."

She said for older generations who maintain strong connections via Facebook and WhatsApp groups, including with loved ones overseas, their engagement with digital media is natural.

"One huge advantage of digital storytelling is that it creates a space where language is not a barrier".

"Self-representations through digital content represents a new way of valuing the knowledge and experiences of people who experienced war, flight, detention, living in limbo for years, and adapting to new environments," she explained.

Najma Ahmadi, 27, who joined the first episode as an expert with her background as a psychologist said her appearance sparked conversations with other Afghans who had heard her.

"Mental health is a very taboo subject for Afghans but also in many Asian countries," she told AAP.

"It's not a visible illness. It's not an injury or a cut that you can go to a doctor to treat it immediately."

Ms Ahmadi said talking about the isolation she experienced during COVID-19 lockdowns candidly and trying to balance it with her studies was new for some members of the community.

Her experience as a refugee who arrived also from Pakistan in 2015 made her struggles feel relatable in a community where the stigma of mental health is rooted in shame.

"With this podcast, they (community members) can listen to it in their private space and they don't feel pressured or someone is judging them so they kind of get the help they need".