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‘A safe haven’: Australia’s first mental health chatbot supports women of colour

by News Desk

Australia’s first mental health chatbot supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, Bla(c)k women and Women of Colour has just launched, providing a safe haven to those who need it most.  

The digital community and resource platform, Maya Cares, will offer critical support for those experiencing racism by directing users to over 100 culturally-appropriate resources, including lists of culturally-appropriate counsellors and information on how to report racism. 

Images from the digital platform, Maya Cares

This psychologically safe space for women of colour was developed by The Creative Co-Operative (The CCO), Australia’s first startup social enterprise that’s 100 per cent migrant Women of Colour owned, led and operated.  

“This is the first time there has been a digital platform of this scale, designed and run by women who experience racism,” says CCO founder, Priyanka Ashraf. 

The CCO points out that Women of Colour experience racism at disproportionate levels and access to culturally-appropriate mental health services is often blocked by systemic barriers.  

Working to ensure the platform addresses these barriers successfully, Ashraf says that input from over 250 women of colour was put into the design of Maya Cares, making the platform a “safe haven and community support” for users to “have their voices heard and experiences validated”.  

“We asked people in our communities what they needed to heal from racial trauma, whether that be in the workplace, education settings or even socially,” says Ashraf.  

“We heard loud and clear the dire need for access to mental health support services that are specifically catered to supporting the experiences of racial trauma of [Women of Colour].” 

Images from the digital platform, Maya Cares
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Images from the digital platform, Maya Cares

There are other accessible digital mental health services out there, but what makes Maya Cares so essential is its emphasis on the unique mental health needs of racially marginalised women.  

An example of this is “Sam the Chatbot”, a digital mental health service developed by the Department of Health and Aged Care. While a helpful resource to some, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) people and women aren’t able to access this chatbox as it lacks an intersectional approach and doesn’t offer support for trauma experienced as a result of racism. 

“Through Maya Cares, users can report racism, as well as get access to an entire library of 100+ culturally appropriate resources and services,” said Ashraf, adding that this includes “various lists of culturally-appropriate counsellors, to overcome shame and self-doubt.” 

This shame and self-doubt, as well as harmful stigmas, surrounding experiences of racism is leaving the issue vastly under-reported in Australia.  

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Images from the digital platform, Maya Cares
Resources Introduction.jpg
Images from the digital platform, Maya Cares

While receiving input for the creation of Maya Cares, CCO found that “approximately 80 per cent of over 150 [Women of Colour] directly surveyed experienced self-doubt on whether an incident they experienced was racist or not,” said Ashraf. 

“Self-doubt, shame and fear of backlash were cited as the top reasons for reluctance to report experiences of racism,” she says.  

This under-reporting is even more concerning as Ashraf says “the lasting impact of racism on mental health is grossly underestimated and undermined as we are regularly gaslit into thinking that we are imagining things when faced with racism.” 

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Images from the digital platform, Maya Cares

One report by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services found that Victorian adults who frequently experience racism are almost five times more likely than those who don’t to have poor mental health. They’re also 2.5 times more likely to have poor physical health.  

The issues of discrimination and racism are costing the Australian economy as well, with Dr Amanuel Elias from Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation estimating racial discrimination cost Australia $44.9 billion, or 3.6 per cent of GDP, each year in the decade from 2001-2011.  

And the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have only exacerbated existing issues of racial discrimination. According to a preliminary report into racism against Asians in Australia, “Women are bearing most of the brunt of heightened racial abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic”. 

Access to culturally-appropriate mental health support for those who’ve experienced racism is crucial, and Ashraf says that, “Through Maya Cares, we now have a safe space to respond to, report and heal from racism and grow awareness of rights”. 

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