GP-backed helpline offers support to CALD people under strain

Doug Hendrie

22/02/2021 4:22:30 PM

Lockdowns cut COVID transmission – but for some, the measures led to new hardships. Here’s how a GP clinic made a difference.

Young Muslim woman looking serious at phone
Lockdowns reduced the impact of COVID-19 – but for some, the measures led to new hardships.

It was early 2020, and Australia, to the shock of its residents, was locking down. The first local cases of community transmission had been detected in early March. Three weeks later, the lockdowns began.
But lockdown did not affect everyone equally.
For some less advantaged people such as new migrants, trapped international students and asylum seekers, lockdown led to full-blown crisis, triggered by job loss, housing insecurity and worsening mental health.
What would it take to help people plunged unexpectedly into crisis? One answer came from a GP clinic in Brisbane: an ‘accidental helpline’ connecting patients, support workers and interpreters.  
Rita Prasad-Ildes, managing director of social enterprise clinic World Wellness Group, told newsGP the helpline came about almost accidentally.
‘We’re a multicultural health clinic and we work with lots of disadvantaged people who are seeking asylum or who are vulnerable,’ she said.
‘As a clinic, we got very busy with people seeking really practical support because of the impact of lockdown and losing their jobs. Lots weren’t getting mainstream messaging from the government due to language barriers.
‘We had to get people food to eat and emergency housing from charitable organisations and faith-based communities.’
Visa situations complicated the situation further, with international students and new migrants often unable to access support available to permanent residents and citizens.
To tackle this sudden new demand, the clinic sought and won funding for the helpline from immediate support measures offered by Queensland Health as a response to COVID-19.
In July, the clinic launched the Multicultural Connect Line, linking callers to support staff and government interpreters speaking everything from Samoan to Farsi to Swahili. The calls soon started pouring in.  
‘We have to provide lots of follow-up support. It’s not just calling for information – it’s really connecting them to the support they need around jobs, finance and housing,’ Ms Prasad-Ildes said.
‘We describe ourselves as the front door to the support system. You call us, we help you.’
Once the initial impact of lockdown passed, more and more callers started seeking help for simmering mental health issues. The support line now fields up to 30 calls a day, with many taking considerable time.

Multicultural-helpline-article.jpgHelpline staff Shannah Martin, a registered nurse and Dr Viviana Jimenez, a doctor trained in Colombia.
Support line team leader Sameera Suleman told newsGP mental health issues are currently surging, though food insecurity and financial problems are still present.             
‘We find once people realise we are a service here to listen and make sure you get the support you require, people get comfortable enough to disclose their issues around mental health,’ she said.
‘Lots of people talk about situational issues – stresses and worries – and from that point, we can start unpicking their mental health needs, tailored to be culturally appropriate.
‘We are well placed to break down some barriers to people accessing support.’
One caller on a temporary protection visa was thrust into homelessness in the wake of the lockdowns.
Support workers set about linking her to emergency housing services, and soon she had a place to stay. With housing solved, the helpline workers helped her enrol in a course she wanted to do alongside paid work.
‘What we found is that this has really increased her confidence and capacity to cope,’ Ms Suleman said.
‘Her background is one with significant trauma. With her practical issues sorted, she has more opportunities to work on healing and recovery.’
The team of support workers come from a range of cultural and professional backgrounds. They sit in a makeshift call centre and work collaboratively, debriefing each other and learning as they go about everything – from new support services, to the types of words people from different cultural backgrounds might use to describe worsening mental health.
‘Word is getting around at a grassroots level, so the number of calls we are getting is increasing – even from regional areas, which is really great,’ Ms Suleman said.
‘We’re building our network across the state, which is quite exciting.’  
Practical help on the job front might range from tackling expectations and offering currently available alternatives to previous jobs, through to connecting callers to neighbourhood services and community groups to help with polishing resumes and networking. The support workers may also suggest extra study if warranted. 
However, support workers find it is often impossible to unpick complex issues in a single phone call; around 40% of callers need more than five call backs to properly provide help, while some callers need up to 25 phone calls to address their specific set of challenges.
‘We’re working with people who are very stressed out and have a lot on their plate – even accessing support can feel too hard. We provide that bridge and ensure people are supported,’ Ms Suleman said.
‘We call them warm referrals – we’re not just giving a phone number; we’re assessing how they feel about contacting that service.
‘We only close their file once we know they are well connected to support.’
The Multicultural Connect Line is available for Queensland residents on 1300 079 020, Monday to Friday from 9am to 4.30pm.
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