Forced displacement, trauma, kidnappings, homicides, violence and loss are common experiences for Colombian refugees prior to coming to New Zealand.
Since 2017 more than 200 Colombians have resettled in Nelson from exile in Ecuador. They often arrive with complex histories of trauma, loss and grief and there was an increasing number of GP referrals to Nelson Marlborough Health Mental Health & Addictions Services (MHAS) for treatment.
Rather than individual therapy, Deb Moore, Nelson Marlborough Health (NMH) Professional Psychology Leader, looked for ways to support the former refugees and build trust, skills and resilience within their own community.
The Stressbusters group programme, based at Victory Community Centre, approaches stress as a normal human response to a refugee’s situation rather than as mental illness.
The key objectives of Stressbusters is anxiety management, building resilience, enhancing self-esteem, and supporting development of group bonding and interdependence.
The five structured sessions, with written and visual resources in Spanish, include a shared lunch. A final session, offered by the Whenua-iti Outdoor Pursuits Centre, enables the group to put into practise the skills they’ve learned, and build trust in each other.
Gillian Taylor, a registered psychologist with previous experience working with refugees, was contracted to coordinate and run the course, along with Nikau House occupational therapist Clive James.
Red Cross interpreter Fernando Hurtado assisted with translation and interpreter services, and a steering group comprising MHAS, Victory Community Centre, community psychologists and Red Cross members, met regularly.
The first group was held from August to November 2017 with two more groups held in 2018.
Feedback and future developments
There was high attendance for all the Stressbusters group sessions and course evaluations were overall very positive and encouraging.
When asked what was the most important thing they learned in the course, one participate wrote: To control my anxiety and manage the pain that I brought with me from Colombia.
Victory Community Centre and NMH Directorate for Vulnerable Populations is providing support for ongoing Stressbusters groups, including interpreter funding and primary care-based counselling.
Refugees as Survivors (RASNZ) has commended the Stressbusters course, and the resources are being made into an electronic package that can be adapted for other refugee populations and shared nationally.
Those likely to benefit from the Stressbusters course are now referred directly from the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre to Victory Community Centre rather than requiring a visit to the GP.
The Stressbusters initiative was the winner of the Darcy Christopher Excellence Award at the 2018 Health Innovation Awards.