Breaking the stigma of mental health in culturally and linguistically diverse communities

In 2017, Dr Shamaruh Mirza co-founded SiTara’s Story – a volunteer-run not-for-profit – which provides a safe space for women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) groups in Canberra to come together to discuss stigmatised topics without fear.

“Mental health is very real, just like physical health. When you have an injury or something, you put a Band-Aid on it. When you have an injury or trauma in your mind you also need to apply something that can make you better,” Mirza told Cosmos.

“I realised that there’s so much stigma around mental health in multicultural communities.”

Born in Bangladesh, Mirza was the first person in her family to study medical science for higher education. After completing her Honours in biochemistry at the University of Dhaka, she came to Australia for her Master’s in biotechnology and biopharmaceuticals at the University of New South Wales and completed her PhD in medical science at the Australian National University.

She then had the opportunity to do postdoctoral research in biophysics at ANU, exploring the contraction and relaxation of skeletal and cardiac muscles, but quickly realised that her opportunities were limited in Australia due to the extremely competitive grants funding process.

Dr shamaruh mirza, mental health
Dr Shamaruh Mirza. Credit: © Salty Dingo 2022

“Being such a young scientist, you could imagine that was quite frustrating for me,” she says.

Since then, her work with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) as a senior toxicologist has allowed her to use her medical sciences expertise while still contributing to Australian public health.

“I’m very, very lucky because I have contributed significantly to Australian health in the last two years,” says Mirza.

While Mirza was completing her PhD in Australia, her sister in Bangladesh had had a baby and was suffering from postnatal depression. Due to the stigma surrounding mental health, their mother wasn’t comfortable taking her sister to see a psychiatrist until Mirza stressed the importance of seeking treatment. Back in Canberra, a friend was suffering similarly.

“I talked to some of my friends and that’s how we co-founded SiTara’s story,” she explains.

“Since then, we have been working with different communities, women, adolescents, children, and men to create mental health awareness.

“We have also trained women from CALD communities to become mental health educator volunteers in partnership with Mental Illness Education ACT (MIEACT).”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, about 28% of those living in the ACT were born overseas and, according to the SiTara’s Story website, “migrant and refugee women can be disadvantaged due to intersecting factors such as economic hardship, language barrier, lack of social support and connection, culture and an absence of targeted support.”

Mirza says that SiTara’s Story organises women’s talk shops to empower CALD women to come and talk about any topic within a safe space.

“It’s about breaking the stigma, you know, sometimes women talk about domestic violence and mental health issues when they are all together. It’s just about creating a support network,” she says.

Another component of the “talk shops” is developing key, basic life skills for free.

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“Like, how to write a resume, how to do networking, how to find a job, how to get legal aid, about, you know, just the basic definition of domestic violence. Because, sometimes, women from these communities, they don’t even realise that they are being mentally abused,” says Mirza.

“So, these are the basic elements that women from different backgrounds need to know so that they can feel empowered.”

But SiTara’s Story isn’t just making a difference for women in Canberra. The Bangladesh chapter runs mental health first aid workshops in villages in rural Bangladesh where, Mirza says, vulnerable people don’t have access to government services.

In November, Mirza was the Australian Capital Territory recipient of the Local Hero Award for 2023. She is now a nominee for the national Award, which will be presented alongside the Young Australian of the Year, Senior Australian of the Year, and Australian of the Year awards in Canberra on Wednesday 25 January.

You can watch at 7:30pm (AEDT) on ABC and iView.

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