3 March 2021

Canberra Day asks us to give where we live to our most vulnerable locals

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Hands Across Canberra has provided essential support to Meridian for the LGBTIQA+ community. Photo: Supplied.

This Canberra Day, will you give where you live to the people who need the most help?

Hands Across Canberra is staking claim to Canberra Day next week on behalf of multiple smaller charities who help those most in need in our community, among them the likes of Meridian.

Once the AIDS Action Council, Meridian offers peer-led services and programs for community cohorts in the LGBTIQA+ community, sex workers and people who use drugs. Demand for their services is high and growing, fundraising is not easy, yet many clients are extremely vulnerable, coping with multiple physical and mental health issues and a high load of community judgement.

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CEO Philippa Moss says, “The common denominator is stigma, discrimination and its impact on minority groups. That’s what binds the group together and why it’s so important to have lived experience among our support staff, so people know they’ll be dealing with someone who really gets what they’re experiencing”.

There is conclusive evidence that LGBTIQA+ people experience higher levels of depression, anxiety disorders, self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide than the general population, and many of Meridian’s clients come from low or no-income households.

The largest cohort of people accessing counselling at Meridian is trans, gender diverse and non-binary people and their families. The service has noted a 272 per cent increase over two years.

There’s also been a 50 per cent increase in counselling need from clients from multicultural communities who are questioning their sexual orientation, and a 27 per cent increase in counselling clients who have patterns of risky substance abuse associated with the impact of stigma and discrimination.

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Mark, one of Meridian’s clients, says: “My cultural history is steeped in shame around [my] behaviour. It is considered completely unacceptable, and because of this, everything I do is secretive and overwhelming at the same time.

“Seeing a counsellor at the Meridian means I avoid the constant worry of social risk around being in public and ‘presenting’ or acting as a ‘normal’ straight person. They realise that it’s about the underlying issues of self-worth, self-respect and self-acceptance.”

Moss says the solutions are never off the shelf. Meridian works hard to design peer-led services and programs that respond directly to community needs. They include providing current information, access to testing, counselling and mental health support, peer support and education.

COVID-19 and last year’s lockdowns were hard for this cohort.

“The impact not only on the community but also our workforce was huge. We had people who would normally be here once a month turn into weekly clients as they coped with job losses, housing instability and economic instability,” she says.

“The conversion therapy discussion and the debate around marriage equality had already triggered anxiety and depression, and the pressure of COVID just tipped them over the edge. The demand for our counselling service skyrocketed.”

Moss says government relief funding for an additional counsellor was much appreciated but will end soon.

“As an organisation, we don’t have the ability to do collateral for advertising and marketing. We don’t have the resources to fundraise to that level.

“Hand Across Canberra has been wonderful, and they have the mechanisms to support us.”

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It costs Meridian around $120 for one person to have one hour of counselling. Moss says that 10 therapy sessions could provide meaningful support for a transgender person struggling with identity issues impacting their ability to work and maintain meaningful relationships or support for a person living with HIV.

Hands Across Canberra has distributed $3 million since 2011, assisting 100 community projects and 300 different organisations. This year, they’re looking for $500,000 to support a group of local charities on the frontline helping other Canberrans.

You can find out more about those charities and donate directly at Hands Across Canberra.

Their essential work includes helping the 1-in-200 locals who are homeless (the second-highest rate in Australia); providing support services to the 1-in-4 young people facing mental health problems; offering a helping hand to the 1-in-6 young people with caring responsibilities, and assisting the 1-in-25 people with a severe or profound disability to live a full life.

“Together, we can support our local charities and organisations while continuing to assist those Canberrans who need it most”, Hands Across Canberra says.

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