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Support for refugees experiencing war trauma

RPA psychiatrist spearheads support network for newly arrived refugees.

A psychiatrist sits on a bench.
SydneyConnect Image: Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Psychiatrist Dr Tanya Dus

Dr Tanya Dus isn't getting much sleep.

A psychiatrist by day at RPA hospital, she spends her nights communicating with family in Ukraine, and scrolling through local news sites filled with reports of torture and rape.

"Sometimes, I have to stop reading because it makes me viscerally upset," Dr Dus said.

She was born in Australia, but has close family in Kyiv. Recently, she lost contact with them for weeks as they hid in a friend's cellar. After returning home, their neighbouring village was hit by a missile.

In a bid to help, Dr Dus has teamed up with clinical colleagues to provide an informal support network for newly arrived refugees.

Many refugees are now being moved to humanitarian visas, giving them access to Medicare, but it is taking time, so her network includes general practitioners, psychologists, dentists and others who are donating their services.

At RPA, she has worked with Director of Psychiatry Dr Viktoria Sundakov to ensure Ukrainian and Russian patients are admitted under native speakers to make it easier for them talk about their experiences.

And, she has been providing staff with cultural training.

"Ukrainians are stoic people. They are unlikely to ask for help, and would not usually admit to having depression or anxiety. They are also deeply suspicious of government, due to past oppressive regimes," she said.

On Saturdays, she often attends a Ukrainian Hall in Lidcombe in western Sydney to talk to the community and help provide clothing, toiletries and other essentials, plus information on accessing services.

But the fallout from the war in Ukraine is also having a broader impact.

"It is triggering for so many people in our community who have experienced war in the past, such as those from Afghanistan or the Balkans. Even people who experienced great trauma in the Second World War yet never spoke of it are now talking. And those relocating here often have survivor guilt. They fear putting down roots because it is disloyal to family left behind."

When it is safe to do so, Dr Dus is keen to volunteer her services in Ukraine. For now, she is doing all she can to make life easier for new arrivals.

"It's challenging being a migrant because you have divided loyalties. I feel guilty having such a good life here, but it has been wonderful seeing Australians care so much. It has made me very proud to be Australian."