Having a network of supportive and understanding people around you is something that many of us take for granted. Even in times like these where we can feel even more isolated from our friends and loved ones, many of us still benefit from an extended system of connections – access to and information about support services that are available to us. In simple terms, that is social inclusion.
But imagine you have newly arrived in the country and didn’t yet have an understanding of everything that is available – or people around you to help you find what you need.
Social inclusion interventions can mean the difference between being mentally and physically healthy or being isolated and not having the connections or resources to address your health and wellbeing needs.
That’s why I am so pleased to have been involved in a new project to identify the social needs and experiences of newly arrived communities for Your Community Health. This important work has led to a new report, Healthy Connection and Engagement: Social inclusion needs of newly arrived communities in Melbourne’s north east.
We spoke with twenty people from newly arrived communities about their unique needs.
What did we find out?
Newly arrived community members told us that they need more social connection opportunities.
They said that meeting with people from the same culture and sharing similar situations and feelings is valuable and being involved in social groups helped improve participants’ mental health and wellbeing. Coming together over food binds people together in many cultures, so organisations are encouraged to consider this when planning initiatives to address social isolation. Many people are also interested in volunteering to help other people in alignment with their religious beliefs.
However people reported that there are some significant barriers to participating in social activities. The majority of survey participants said they have difficulty getting to the places needed. Either they do not drive yet, have no car, or it is hard to navigate their way around other transport options because of poor English. Lack of time, family commitments also make it difficult for people to attend some groups.
Language also can make it difficult. Providing interpreters and bicultural workers for social activities is really important to consider when planning social inclusion activities and to provide a culturally appropriate services; bicultural workers can play important role in facilitating conversations between services and communities from refugee backgrounds.
Creating more opportunities for new arrived communities to be heard, for them to share their experiences as vulnerable community members, and what they need makes people feel more included and valued within society.
How we can learn from these findings?
This report will inform the future planning and design of social inclusion initiatives to ensure that they are more inclusive for people experiencing the most disadvantage in our community.
It found that any interventions to improve social inclusion should measure their clients’ risk of social exclusion beyond participation in community programs. Clients should be assessed against social exclusion risk factors (included in the report) and connected with specific services and programs.
It is also important that new arrived communities are involved in the design and delivery of services. Organisations should identify pathways for them to have greater decision-making power in the functioning of services and programs and ensure more diverse and inclusive representation of a broad range of newly arrived communities members across all levels of service management and governance.
To develop a culturally diverse workforce, it is important to provide volunteer opportunities and work experience for people from refugee backgrounds that include pathways to paid employment – and provide flexible working or volunteering hours, interpreting services and local options.
Community-led initiatives work best for developing social connections, and further to involving newly arrived communities in the design and delivery of services, it is also important for governments and services to provide ‘on the ground’ resources such as free or low-cost venues, transport, catering, and language support through bicultural and bilingual workers and interpreting services.
Why is this research important?
As a Health Promotion Officer, I understand the importance of building programs with the community so that it meets their needs.
Health Promotion Officers are responsible for planning, developing and implementing projects to improve the health of individuals and the community by raising awareness of healthy lifestyles, disease and disability, and other health-related issues. We use a variety of strategies, including health education, mass media, community development and community engagement processes, advocacy and lobbying strategies, social marketing strategies.
In all this work, it is essential that the client and community’s needs are put first – because without this, any programs can be inaccessible to them. This research will help a range of health and social support organisations, to develop and provide more inclusive services and address the particular social inclusion needs of refugees and asylum seekers.
It can benefit local government health planners and health promotion practitioners in community health services, neighbourhood house staff and committees, volunteer groups and committees, volunteering organisations, and any other organisations, groups or practitioners.
All these groups have a role to play in supporting community members to that learn, work, engage in community activities and ensure their voice is heard and represented when decisions are being made on behalf of the general public. This report will help make sure decision makers understand how to include newly arrived communities at all levels of planning.
Improving mental health through building socially inclusive communities is one of the three strategic prevention priorities of Your Community Health’s 2017-2021 Prevention Plan. It is a shared plan with North East Healthy Communities and other community health and women’s health agencies in the region. I am excited that we are working collaboratively to create better social inclusion initiatives for all people in our community, especially those who have newly arrived.
Now we have a better understanding of what the challenges and needs are – we can work together with community members to develop opportunities to ensure they are more connected. I’m looking forward to sharing these new plans with you as they develop!
If you would like to be involved in any of Your Community Health’s existing social support and engagement programs, you can find out more here.