It took three attempts and three years in prison for Minh Tam Nguyen to emigrate to Australia from Vietnam.
“On my first attempt, my sister and I left by sea after midnight and were chased by boats, canoes and gun shots. We were caught not long after departure and our time in prison was filled with constant punishment, anxiety and intimidation. Thirteen months in prison felt like thirteen years and on top of all that, my mother passed away from a stroke and I had to deal with the grief of losing my mother as well as the horror of prison. To this day, this was my mental health rock bottom,” says Tam.
During her second attempt to come to Australia, Tam was imprisoned again when the boat she was in was blown back to shore during the first storm of the season. During her 14 months in prison, Tam was forced to take on the role of team leader of the female inmates.
When reflecting on these difficult experiences, Tam says “there are three things that stand out to me: my family, my faith and my future.
“Firstly, the idea of giving up and not seeing my family and loved ones again was not an option. Secondly, I had a strong faith – and I don’t mean religion, but a spiritual centre and belief that things would get better if I kept trying my best. And finally, my future - I believed that I still had so much that I had to do, and to give up would be to do a great injustice to myself. It was thanks to this that I had the courage to try and escape for the third time – because two times in jail wasn’t enough!”
Third time was a charm from Tam and she arrived in Australia in 1988 and began working six days per week in a Vietnamese bakery and studying English at night to support her family.
Despite the long hours, “I was happy as I knew my family would be better off with my support,” says Tam.
After several years in Australia, Tam began working as a child support worker for an Indo-Chinese refuge, a position that was not welcomed by the whole Vietnamese community. She then went for an interview as a bilingual mental health worker at an Indo-Chinese group home.
“I was inspired by the Manager when I saw the way she took care of a Vietnamese male consumer. She used simple English to communicate with him and was caring and professional as she prepared his meals and took him to the shower. I wanted to be like her, with a meaningful career and life, helping people who can’t help themselves” says Tam.
After ten years working in the community and supporting Vietnamese carers, Tam recognized there was a lack of understanding around mental health within south western Sydney’s Vietnamese-speaking community. She has spent the last two decades striving to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness and increase education.
“I applied for a scholarship to become a Vietnamese Mental Health First Aid instructor, as it was a chance for me to transfer my knowledge and my experience back into my community.
“There were five health workers from Sydney that went for training, but four have since withdrawn. Luckily, I have been able to continue to provide this course to the Vietnamese community with the support of my Local Health District,” says Tam.
Tam has since run 33 courses and taught over 700 community members how to recognise and respond to people in distress.
Tam was awarded the NSW Mental Health Commissioner’s Community Champion award in September 2018. She was nominated for the annual award by NSW Mental Health Commissioner Catherine Lourey after they met during a visit Ms Lourey made to Sydney’s Vietnamese-speaking community in 2017.
“This nomination reflected all the work I have put in over the past two decades, my passion and my contribution to empowering and educating the Vietnamese Community on mental health and wellbeing,” she says.
Tam isn’t stopping anytime soon. Her next endeavour is to create a directory of mental health services for the Vietnamese community. The directory will assist the Vietnamese community to reach out for help when they need it and support mental health service providers to connect consumers with appropriate Vietnamese health professionals and services.
“The ongoing build and development of this directory is something I look forward to doing for the rest of my career,” says Tam.