Language barrier stopped refugee mum-of-three, who died suddenly, from getting mental health support

The head of the New Zealand Myanmar Ethnics Council says they have waited too long to ask for help after a mother of three died suddenly on Monday.

Christalin Zalattphyu Thangpawl of the New Zealand Myanmar Ethnics Council says 37-year-old Pretty Hser, a refugee of the Karen ethnic group, had been suffering from depression and struggled to find support due to a lack of funding for translation services.

Ms Hser leaves behind a husband and three young sons after what is suspected to be a suicide.

Ms Thangpawl said when she heard of Ms Hser's passing, she went straight to their house.

"Her little boys ... it seemed like they didn't know and just hung around ... I couldn't handle myself," she said.

"Her husband said she's been suffering like this for a long time ... he didn't realise that she would do that.

"She shouldn't have been in this situation."

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Ms Thanpawl said Ms Hser had found it hard to access translation services and mental health counselling after arriving in New Zealand in 2016.

"A lot of places, even clinics, when we make an appointment and ask for a translator, they say yes, but in reality they don't have enough resources," Ms Thangpawl said.

"They have to wait for a counsellor for six months, or even a year.

"She has survived through all the hard times in refugee camps and now she's in a safe country, but when she experienced depression, she couldn't get enough support."

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As well as Ms Hser, another woman from the Myanmarese community was also admitted to hospital last week due to a suspected suicide attempt, Ms Thangpawl said.

"A lot of our members have been struggling ... when they arrive in New Zealand, it's a great country and a safe country, but people come here from refugee camps and everything is new to them and the main challenge is the language barrier," she said.

There are plenty of able translators in the community, but they are hired on a casual basis, and have to also take fulltime jobs, which leaves them unavailable when they are needed, Ms Thangpawl said.

"We do have resources here, it's just that we don't have financial resources.

"From my perspective, the government has allocated a lot of funding for refugees, but in reality they don't actually provide the practical support for the grassroots level of the refugee community.

"We try our best and we're working as well - some of us who have good English, we've been quite stressed from supporting our members.

"If the resources are provided directly to the community, I think we can do a lot better."

Ms Thangpawl said she, and the rest of her community, were hesitant to complain after being given a new life in New Zealand.

"We are all appreciative of coming to the country ... we haven't raised this for a long time," she said.

"Honestly, I think it's actually a weakness as well that we didn't speak out, so some other people - some higher people - they don't know.

"We don't really like to complain to anyone because everyone appreciates this country - we don't want anyone to say 'oh we helped you guys and now you complain.'

"We're pretty much invisible and remain silent."

Ms Thangpawl said Myanmarese refugees are sometimes being resettled in areas where they are isolated from their communities, and especially from their own ethnic groups.

She said this could have something to do with a lack of suitable social housing, and said she has raised it with the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

"We would like to ask the Refugee Resettlement Centre in Mangere - when they allocate new refugee families, it would be really helpful if they relocated them to the closest ethnic groups where they are already based," she said.

Immigration NZ National Manager Refugee Division Andrew Lockhart said it was very sad to hear of Ms Hser's death, and "our thoughts are with the family at this difficult time".

"Mental health support is provided at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre in Auckland, where refugees spend their first six weeks in New Zealand.

"During that reception programme a Settlement Plan is developed with each quota refugee family that outlines the types of services they will be connected with to support their successful settlement in their community.

"New Zealand Red Cross is contracted to provide settlement support for up to 12 months when refugees are settled in their community.

"This includes linking refugees with specialist mental health services, alongside other services in the community.

"Language assistance services - such as interpreting and translation - are essential to enable access to New Zealand’s public services for people from non-English speaking backgrounds.

"Government agencies are working together to improve the quality, consistency and coordination of language assistance services across the public sector."

According to an MBIE report from earlier this year, almost a quarter of all refugees in New Zealand had asked for translation services within the past year, including nearly two thirds of the refugee population over the age of 65.

The report found that older women and women with children were much less likely to learn English as quickly as other refugee groups, and often "relied on family and/or community members to provide translation and help with communication in daily life".

Red Cross General manager of Migration Programmes Rachel O'Connor also said she was saddened to hear about Ms Hser's passing, but would not discuss specific cases, past or present, citing privacy concerns.

"We know it can take time for people to adjust to living in New Zealand after living through conflict and persecution," Ms O'Connor said.

"Refugees are regular people who have experienced extraordinary circumstances and following this it's important that they receive any extra support they may need.

"Red Cross provides support through a 12-month settlement programme and refers people onto specialised services, including for mental health needs, where needed.

"Local communities can play their part in helping with the settlement process for former refugees by reaching out to their new neighbours, this support can help people feel welcome and safe in their new home."

Dr John Crawshaw, the Ministry of Health's Director of Mental Health, said he was sorry to hear of the death, and also of the suspected attempted suicide last week.

He said "there may be different funding models depending on whether an individual requiring an interpreter accesses primary care, specialist services or DHB services".

A Givealittle page has been set up to raise funds for the family to pay for a funeral, which will be held this weekend.


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Pretty Hser with her husband and three sons.
Pretty Hser with her husband and three sons. Source: Supplied