New opportunity for African women to participate in SOLAR Program

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested us physically, socially, and psychologically, and having to rely on coping strategies and support networks has been overwhelming for many of us. 

The strain has been particularly great for some of the most marginalised people in our community. This includes women who are already isolated by virtue of their cultural or linguistic background and may be distanced from family and friends in precarious situations abroad, as well as women from refugee and displaced backgrounds with previous experiences of trauma. On top of other experiences of trauma, a pandemic can be devastating and urgently increases the need for evidence-based care that can address the unique access barriers that people from these groups frequently experience.

We have a tight-knit community of African women in Western Melbourne that depend on one another for social interaction, advice, and help. We couldn’t function as a community during the COVID-19 pandemic, which left women feeling isolated and alone,” explained representatives of the Western African Cultural Association.

 “At the same time, many of us were extremely stressed about the health and safety of family members overseas, who don’t have the same support and resources available to them to deal with the virus. Feeling helpless, worried, and disconnected from friends and family caused immense stress and strain on African women’s mental health.” 

Although professional mental health services exist to support people experiencing significant mental health challenges, many people, particularly from these groups, feel reluctant to engage with mental health services given cultural safety and sensitivity concerns. For others, the cost can be prohibitive. In many cases, people are looking for some extra skills, coping strategies, and social supports that can help them navigate their own pathways towards recovery outside of the formal mental health service system.

Phoenix Australia is working with women from marginalised communities who want to help their communities recover, using the Skills for Life Adjustment and Resilience (SOLAR) program. SOLAR is a skill-building program developed to provide people with evidence-based strategies that have been shown to increase resilience, reduce distress, and support recovery from trauma and adversity. 

“In developing SOLAR, we wanted to build on the skills that were already existing in a community. SOLAR empowers lay people from within a community to deliver the program locally to people in their networks who already know and trust them,” says Professor Meaghan O’Donnell, Head of Research at Phoenix Australia and internationally recognised trauma expert.  

“We know that CALD communities often face cultural and linguistic barriers to accessing formalised mental health services; this model provides an approach that might help overcome some of these access barriers.” 

Working in partnership with the Western African Cultural Association, Phoenix Australia will pilot a collaborative process of culturally adapting SOLAR to suit the needs of women of African background living in Melbourne. 

Led by Dr Kari Gibson, psychologist and Research Fellow at Phoenix Australia, and in collaboration with Western African Cultural Association leaders Istanbul Serar, Amran Elmi, and Amal Hassan-Ali, the project will co-facilitate a series of focus groups to inform cultural adaptations. Below, the Western African Cultural Association share their hopes for the program.

“We hope that the culturally adapted SOLAR program will help African women living in Melbourne overcome the stress that’s arisen while we’ve coped with various challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, like losing jobs, mental health difficulties, strain on relationships, and breakdowns in our social support networks. We want women to walk away from the program with some extra coping mechanisms and strategies that they can use in their day to day lives; strategies to reduce stress and anxiety, build better relationships, and process difficult events and tragedies within one’s life. We hope to create a safe and trusting space for them to share their experiences and learn something new.” 

Dr Gibson outlines her longer-term vision for developing and using SOLAR with CALD groups. 

“If this pilot proves successful, it gives us a model for how we can go about culturally adapting the SOLAR program to better meet the diverse needs of people in CALD communities in Australia. More immediately, for the women at the Western African Cultural Association, with this experience under their belt, there’s no stopping them. They already support their community in so many ways; now they will be able to draw on SOLAR to do this as well.”

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