Case studies

Accessing mental health services: Considering the obstacles faced by asylum seekers

Natalie Morrison, Western Sydney University

Ben Morrison, Australian College of Applied Psychology

The challenges faced by asylum seekers in accessing services in their asylum countries are pervasive as they are faced with language barriers and an unfamiliar social structure while continuing to process the traumas that have led them to this new place of uncertainty.

Andy, a young boy aged 10, grew up in a war ravaged country in the Middle East with his parents and younger brother. On a daily basis the family were faced with depersonalised threats as military aircraft with missiles bombed their village, and more personal dangers as militia and looters would break into their home. In search of a ‘better life’ his family boarded a small dilapidated boat where individuals had little more than standing room in an effort to reach the shores of Australia. Following rough seas this overcrowded vessel sank with Andy and his family being amongst the ‘fortunate’ who were rescued by the Australian Navy. Over the course of the past 4 years since the capsizing of the boat, Andy and his family have been faced with an overwhelming number of stressors. Individually many of these seem manageable (e.g., finding a place to live), however when such stressors are understood within a much larger cultural landscape even the most simple tasks are suddenly infinitely more difficult to solve.

For instance, following their achievement of asylum seeker status, Andy’s parents began seeking a family home, and needed to engage with many government support agencies (e.g., welfare, housing) – agencies that had no comparable service in their home country. Therefore, Andy’s parents were unaware of the services even available to help them. When provided with pamphlets detailing many of these agencies, Andy’s parents had difficulties communicating with the individual agents as they did not speak English and interpreters needed to be arranged and many appointments were then required to complete paperwork due to the time consuming nature of all interactions being filtered through a third party. Some of the primary sources of support needed by the family were for various traumas experienced individually and collectively. However, new barriers were faced over and above knowing the existence of these services and the capacity to acquire language interpreters – here it became clear that even within their native language a literacy of mental health and a desire to disclose regarding emotional experiences was far removed from the expectations of clinicians working in these industries in Australia. As such, the many traumas Andy’s family had experienced, that were now impinging on their ability to engage in their new environment (e.g., being hyper-vigilant, avoiding busy places), were extremely difficult to manage and treat.

Discussion questions

  • When considering Andy’s trauma narrative what events would you consider including in this narrative? Did these events conclude when his family was rescued by the Australian Navy?
  • Andy and his parents did not speak English when they arrived in Australia – was this the only source of challenge to accessing support services in Australia?
  • What additional types of support might the Australian government consider in the future to help other families in similar situations to Andy’s?


Sources and experience of stress and gender issues in the Victorian Police Force

Dianne Perrett-Abrahams, Forensic & Health Psychologist, Victorian Occupational Support Service

The aim of this study was to examine stress in both male and female police officers and to verify if there is a difference between the sexes in the sources and experiences of work stress with members of the Victorian Police Force. This study also examined personality dispositional factors of anger and dysfunctional attitudes as predictors of stress for both male and female officers. Operational police officers of the Victoria Police Force matched for length of service and geographic area, were randomly selected by the Personnel Department of the Victoria Police Force. There were 200 subjects targeted with 86 subject respondents in all. These comprised 34 females and 52 males. Four psychological tests were used in this study and one questionnaire. The four tests were selected to determine the stressors of officer’s experience, behaviours and coping styles that police report to cope with stress events: The Beck Depression Inventory, the Dysfunctional Attitude Scale, Novaco’s Anger Scale and the Spielberger Police Stress Survey.

Contrary to expectations, there was no evidence of differences between the sexes in perceived stress and experiences of stress in terms of both the content and context of stress as measured by the Spielberger Police Stress Survey (Spielberger, Westberry, Grier & Greenfield, 1981). As well, female officers did not report significantly lower anger scores than their male colleagues. Dispositional anger scores were, however, significantly correlated with police stress and anger was a major predictor of all measures of police stress along with the dysfunctional attitude of demands for perfection. Methodological limitations of the present study were related to the reliance on self report questionnaire measures. Future studies may need to include inventories which reveal a measure of the test takers dissimulation and could involve interviews as a means of data gathering and adopt a longitudinal design.

The majority of research on police stress fails to address a significant concern – that of gender (Kurtz, 2008). Studies indicate that police stress and breakdown is not merely a response to substantive job stress, but entrenched in the gender culture, structure and procedure of policing. Our understanding of such stressors between male and female police members continues to be limited and stress associated negative health outcomes prevail in police forces around the globe.


Kurtz, D. L. (2008). Controlled burn: The gendering of stress and burnout in modern policing. Feminist Criminology, 3(3), 216–238.

Discussion questions

  • Do female police officers have different experiences to their male counterparts? And if so what are some of these differences?
  • Evidence indicates, for example, that women bring different leadership skills and behaviours to the table; do you believe this is the case and if so how does diversity impact positively on health outcomes?
  • Does greater gender diversity engender possible protection to female officers against alleged bullying, often cited as stressors in police studies?
  • How would such diversity impact on negative mental health outcomes in police forces?