June 24, 2024

Building bonds and overcoming barriers: Supporting men & boys to thrive in Australia

As part of our ongoing journey of listening, Spectrum was recently able to hear insightful stories from women participants in Spectrum’s PINC (Parenting in a New Culture) program. They described the profound effects of isolation among migrants, leading to unemployment or underemployment, family conflicts, and health issues.

These are not uncommon issues for New Australians. Isolation equally impacts men and boys within refugee and migrant communities, as they settle into their new lives in Australia.

Men’s Wellbeing: Background and challenges

When it comes to men’s health and wellbeing, social isolation plays a huge part. Research indicates that isolation has measurable, negative implications for males, especially those that are particularly vulnerable, such as refugees and migrant men: Think potentially shorter lifespans, greater risk of heart disease, and higher likelihood of unhealthy coping practices to deal with problems, like suicidality.

In addition, a recent study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) highlighted significant barriers in accessing mental health services among men from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds – particularly refugees and those from developing nations.

Despite experiencing higher rates of severe depressive symptoms, trauma, grief and stress, this demographic of men are less likely to seek support due to stigma, shame and perceived social expectations. These additional factors, when compared to non-CALD men, further compounds their ability to learn, earn and settle successfully after arriving.

Notably, financial worries and employment stress are considered to be major factors impacting – and impacted by – poor mental health in men and boys across all of Australian society.

For newly-arrived men, the sense of disempowerment that many feel in relation to finding work, providing for their family and even rebuilding a career after years of stress and displacement from their homes, can become deeply internalised and even harder to counteract.

The good news: Connection and ‘mateship’ make all the difference

During Men’s Health Week 2024, the Australian Men’s Health Forum highlighted the importance of ‘mateship’ and connection in overcoming barriers to create better health and wellbeing outcomes for men and boys. This is particularly applicable for those most at risk of isolation – in this context, migrants and refugees.

“‘Mateship’ isn’t just about having friends. Instead, it implies a sense of shared experience, mutual respect and unconditional assistance” – AMHF/Wikipedia

In short, it’s not enough to have services available to support men and boys who are newly-arrived in Australia, experiencing isolation on top of the challenges of settlement: Instead, what makes the difference is who connects someone to these services, and how they go about it.

We’re pretty proud of our Spectrum Settlement and Family Services team, and the compassion, respect and lived experience that they bring to the work they do with clients. They’re our ‘who’, that make such a difference. So, let’s meet a few!

During Men’s Health Week (10-16 June), we caught up with three of our Settlement and Family Services team members – Gebru, Reza, and Fisseha – to chat about meaningful work, social barriers, and the pivotal role of connection, in supporting the wellbeing of men and boys from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

Spectrum Settlement and Family Services Group Facilitator Fisseha Birara and Community Development Caseworker Gebreselasie Gebru

Supporting newly-arrived men and boys

At Spectrum, our Settlement team coordinates  a number of programs and services for migrants and refugees across all demographics. Engaging men and boys can pose challenges for different reasons, including stigma around help-seeking, lack of time or opportunity due to work, and misconceptions about available services and their costs.

“There can be a stigma… in some communities, it is considered taboo to seek assistance, specifically for men who are generally seen as problem solvers and feel reluctant to show vulnerability.”

Supporting male clients means also addressing the barriers to accessing information, advice, and support for their health, wellbeing, and social roles, exacerbated by  isolation. Reza Mousavi, a Spectrum Group Facilitator of many years, explains that this often begins at a grassroots level. He notes the importance of providing a relaxed environment, as well as community word-of-mouth, in building trust and encouraging men to take part in Spectrum’s programs and services.

Despite commonly arriving with years of professional experience and education, many refugee and migrant men encounter significant, often unexpected, setbacks upon their arrival in Australia. Reza identifies some of these hurdles: “They may go through adverse emotional, psychological, and physical stages due to difficulties navigating a new system, language barriers, unemployment or underemployment, lack of connection and support, loss of identity, norms, and discrimination or racism.”

Gebreselasie Gebru, a Spectrum Community Development Caseworker, explains, “[some] clients suffer culture shock, and clash of expectations and reality, that [can] lead to depression and anxiety… and possible anti-social behaviour.” Although their new Australian home provides a sense of safety, life is still fraught for many.


In light of this, having a person-centred approach, personalised connection and promoting a sense of ‘mateship’ through sharing their own authentic stories and lived experiences, are important ways that facilitators break down such barriers to improving the health, wellbeing, and employment prospects of refugee and migrant men, as they settle in Australia.


Moreover, the ability for clients to find gainful, rewarding employment in Australia is vital – both for financial stability and their own health and wellbeing. There is a strong correlation between work and wellbeing, particularly among male clients; many of whom perceive their intrinsic value as linked to their role as ‘breadwinner’ for their family.

Addressing employment and skill-building often paves the way for improved mental health outcomes. Gebru is enthusiastic about his role coordinating education and employment programs for young people and adults from African-Australian communities: “Employment is the best thing you can provide to someone – so any positive job outcomes give me a lot of reward and satisfaction, because I understand it impacts the future of the individual and his family members.”

Support for fathers

One of Spectrum’s unique programs for men is our PINC (Parenting in a New Culture) for Fathers, fostering supportive new connections between our facilitators, and migrant or refugee Dads. Here, an important idea is introduced: That taking care of one’s own wellbeing, plays a vital role in being a great father. And that a happy, fulfilled Dad, is not only a great role model for his children, but essential to maintaining their connection to culture. Says Reza, “If I could positively impact people’s lives and help fathers understand how their role has a significant impact on children’s well-being… that for me is very valuable.”.

To do this, he says, “In the PINC for Fathers program we normalize [seeking support]; we share some personal experiences, and encourage fathers to look after their mental hygiene as we do for physical well-being. We discuss stress factors, signs and symptoms, and how to deal with and reduce them. We introduce participants to the mental health system in Australia and, most importantly, how to seek assistance when needed.”.

Beyond skills and certificates

Fisseha Birara, a Spectrum Group Facilitator who works with both adults and young people, understands the value of coaching and affirming his clients.

“We try to help them become aware of their strengths and talents, their interests, to think about what they enjoy. Knowing this about themselves, they can change tremendously, and build confidence.”

Fisseha believes in his clients’ capabilities, insisting that ‘they get all the credit!’ for taking the challenging steps to seek support, build skills, and develop their lives in Australia. He takes the time to check in on his clients, and has an ‘open door’ policy when they need help or advice – particularly for those that are isolated, or vulnerable.

To walk alongside clients on their often-bumpy journeys is both rewarding, and challenging. Young men, in particular, can struggle with staying engaged in programs when battling their own stresses and external pressures. And having experienced so much upheaval trying to navigate new systems, it can be easy to forget that someone cares. “But I always keep trying,” says Fisseha, “to let them know I’m there.”.

Personal insights

The challenges faced by Spectrum facilitators themselves as migrants and refugees, as well as their varied career journeys around the globe, enable them to deeply empathise with their clients’ when settling in Australia. Their personal stories help clients, particularly men, to feel heard, and more comfortable seeking the support they need.

Spectrum Group Facilitator Reza Mousavi with members of his Parenting in a New Culture (PINC) for Fathers group


As well as professional experience in relief and development in new nations like South Sudan, Gebru also draws inspiration from his own journey:

“I too have passed through the barriers… my work with clients is influenced by my experience as a migrant and the challenges I have overcome.”

Agrees Reza, “As a person from a refugee background and a father… my role allows me to directly interact with the community and fathers, making a tangible difference in people’s lives. It inspires me when I observe clients’ courage and resilience in standing on their feet in a new country.”.

With always more clients to reach and support, the facilitators don’t often get a chance to stop and reflect on their positive impacts on refugee and migrant men and boys throughout Spectrum’s community. In fact, they’re quick to affirm that clients of all demographics are welcomed, and entirely responsible for their own success.

However, given the barriers experienced by men in this cohort to even accessing programs or services, some particularly special moments stand out. One team member describes a chance meeting with a father from a previous year’s program. Approaching his Spectrum facilitator and bi-cultural worker, full of emotion, the gentleman expressed his genuine thanks for their impactful work. As a result, he told them, he had been working on improving his relationship with his teenage son – something that held great meaning for him.

And recently, wrote a client to his Spectrum caseworker, “Your belief in my potential and your willingness to invest in my future means more to me than words can express… [it] also inspires and motivates me to work hard and achieve.”.

In chatting with the team about their work, witnessing their commitment, empathy and willingness to share, one can get a sense of the connection and ‘mateship’ that is shown to be vital for better health outcomes in men from refugee and migrant backgrounds, as they settle in Australia.


Further reading:
Australian Institute of Family Studies (2023), Mental health care needs and access among Australian men: A data linkage study and Understanding the mental health and help-seeking behaviours of refugees.
Radhamony, R. et al (2023), Perspectives of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) community members regarding mental health services: A qualitative analysis
Australian Men’s Health Forum (2024), Know your man facts