Perth Afghan community calls for more support amid mental anguish after Taliban takeover

Nelly Mher (centre) was born in Australia after her parents, Deba and Amin, fled Afghanistan.   (ABC News: Herlyn Kaur)

Members of the Afghan community in Perth are warning of a growing mental health crisis as their home country descends into chaos.

"Having survivor's guilt, because it's like, 'That could have very well been me. That could have been my parents'," 22-year-old Nelly Mher said.

Ms Mher was lucky to grow up in Perth, but tragic scenes from Afghanistan on television and social media are triggering for the young woman, whose parents were forced to flee the stricken country in the 1980s.

As the fear of living under the Taliban's regime continues to plague the nation, Afghans in Australia say they are dealing with a silent crisis in need of urgent action.

Intergenerational anguish

Ms Mher is one of thousands of young Afghans who are feeling the mental toll of the conflict in Afghanistan as they watch from afar.

The images on TV and social media from Afghanistan make Nelly Mher anxious and worried. (ABC News: Herlyn Kaur)

"It looks like a lot of burnout, a lot of heightened anxiety, stress, feelings of hopelessness, feeling overwhelmed," she said.

"I suppose [it's] a huge feeling of guilt as well, which I think is the general consensus."

Ms Mher grew up learning about Afghanistan through her parents, and she said the unfolding crisis was a stark reminder of what they had endured before fleeing to Australia.

"This is what they fled from, and now it's a whole new generation of people who are trying to flee from something that happened 20 years ago."

Ms Mher said she feared for the young girls and women who now have an uncertain future living under oppressive rulers.

"Hearing stories of young girls who are trying to destroy evidence of their education," she said.

"That really hits hard, because … we're so privileged.

"To be able to … go to school, go to university and proudly hang up our diplomas, degrees et cetera, whereas for them, something they've worked so hard for, they now have to destroy evidence of so that they're not being attacked."

Fears post-September 11 racism will repeat

In light of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Ms Mher said she also worried about racism bubbling to the surface and being labelled as a "terrorist".

Deba and Amin Mher were married in Pakistan shortly after they fled Afghanistan. (ABC News: Herlyn Kaur)

"We saw that happen post 9/11 and the impacts of that lasted years," she said.

"When I was in primary school, it was very rare that I'd say I was Afghan, because you'd hear remarks from other children, you'd hear remarks from teachers as well.

"So, I think a lot of people do have that kind of fear deep down of, 'Is that what we're going to be faced with again?' And then … 'how long is that going to last for?' So I think it is a very real fear at the moment."

Call for more CALD services

Ms Mher also said one of the biggest issues affecting her community right now was the lack of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) mental health services.

She said many have been left to rely on each other for support.

With Australia's commitment to taking in 3,000 Afghan refugees, Ms Mher said she wanted to see the new entrants met with the appropriate mental health support after their harrowing journeys.

"Right now, the system is just not equipped to be dealing with the complexities of the traumas that they've just faced," she said.

Families 'helpless' watching suffering

For Ms Mher's parents, Deba and Amin Mher, the violence overseas has unearthed a deep sense of familiarity, and they are trying to find ways to help those still stuck in the chaos.

Deba and Amin Mher fear for their family in chaos-stricken Afghanistan. (ABC News: Herlyn Kaur)

"It's really, really difficult, really hard, really challenging at the moment," Mr Mher said.

"We have family back home — like brother, sister, cousins and all that. At the same time, the fears we have from the Taliban, they had been there before, the brutality, the torture our families went through.

"Now, they're actually in fear and in tears. They're really worried about the future, what's going to happen, and that affects us a lot."

Community groups stretched

Mental health care provider Multicultural Futures, which provides support to multicultural communities in WA, said its service had already been grappling with a growing number of clients.

Multicultural Future's senior mental health advocate, Pushpa Siroley, said while the demand for services had continued to increase over the past few years, funding for that was stagnant.

Mental health advocate Pushpa Siroley says their service is under pressure amid rising demand. (ABC news: Herlyn Kaur)

Ms Siroley said the current humanitarian crisis was further distressing the Afghan diaspora, who were already finding it difficult to recover from their own traumatic experiences.

"Having a Western model of treating people from refugee backgrounds is itself a barrier because most of our clients don't talk in terms of diagnosis or feelings. They're more open to talk about the challenges they're experiencing."

She said mental health literacy presented a huge challenge for refugees, who were already struggling with having to recreate their identities, restart their lives and have their qualifications discounted.

"While there are services here, they are stretched, that's not enough," Ms Siroley said.

"We are unable to cope with the numbers already … and I think that's where improving mental health literacy would improve early intervention."


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