Don and Ghani
“The counselling helped me to stand on my feet. I began to be assertive in my heart when negative thoughts or bad nightmares kept appearing. Now I try to live in the moment and to live positively” STTARS client

STTARS is a specialised service that offers counselling for people from refugee and refugee-like backgrounds to support them in their recovery and healing process. Our services are free of charge and may be accessed no matter how long a person has been in Australia. There is a waiting list for our services, but it is ‘managed’ and those with the highest needs are given priority.

STTARS offers counselling and other support for people who are having difficulties believed to be associated with their experience of torture or refugee-related trauma prior to their arrival in Australia.

We work with survivors across the spectrum of their settlement journey; our clientele includes people who have arrived in Australia on humanitarian or other permanent visa types, those who are seeking asylum, new arrivals and those who have been here for many years.

Our counsellors provide a safe and respectful environment in which survivors of torture and trauma can better understand, manage and heal from the physical and emotional pain of their experiences.

Our service is free, voluntary and confidential, and is conducted with qualified counsellors and interpreters.

People from refugee or refugee-like backgrounds (including asylum seekers) can refer themselves to STTARS for counselling support, or they may be referred – with their consent – by a GP, another organisation, a friend or a family member.

An intake assessment is necessary to access the program. Due to the high demand for our services, there is usually a waiting period. Especially vulnerable groups and people with high needs are prioritised for faster allocation.

We do not have the capacity to work with acute drug and alcohol or mental health crisis situations but will co-manage such clients with specialised acute care services.

If you or somebody you know is in crisis and needs support immediately, refer them to Mental Health Triage Service / Assessment and Crisis Intervention Service, telephone 13 14 65 (Adelaide Metropolitan area, for adults) or your local hospital.

For more information about our Counselling Program, please view the drop-down boxes below or contact our Intake Coordinator on 8206 8900 or via email:

What is torture?

The use of torture is prohibited by international law. However, it is still practised in many countries.

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) defines torture as being:

“… any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

Torture is an act that involves intense humiliation and can range in severity from mild to extreme physical and psychological brutality. The intention is not only to cause severe pain and suffering but to also instill fear in the victim, their family and their community. The aim of the torturer is to break down the humanity, dignity, identity and self-respect of the individual. Fear is an essential element of torture. When torture is used, a whole society, not just the individual who is being tortured, lives in fear. Other members of society are afraid that it will also happen to them.

In this way, torture is a tool of social control used by a system that rules individuals and societies through fear.

Some of the most common methods of physical torture include:

  • beating
  • sensory and sleep deprivation
  • electric shocks and burns
  • stretching
  • submersion
  • suffocation
  • sexual violence and rape

Common methods of psychological torture include:

  • isolation
  • threats to self and loved ones
  • humiliation
  • mock executions
  • mock amputations
  • witnessing others being raped, killed or brutalised

For more information about torture visit International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture.

What is trauma?

People become refugees or asylum seekers in the context of political conflict, organised violence and human rights violations committed against particular groups who are targeted due to aspects of their identity. Therefore, it is extremely personal, and this has consequences for how people cope with the aftermath of what they have been through.

We use the term ‘trauma’ to refer to the pain, distress, suffering and other physical, psychological or social consequences that our clients experience in the context of political violence, or arising from their forced migration journey.

Traumatic experiences prior to leaving may include:

  • prolonged harassment, intimidation
  • forced separation from loved ones
  • chaos, attacks, invasions, raids
  • killings and disappearances
  • detainment, imprisonment without trial
  • sexual abuse, rape
  • war, bombing
  • torture
  • terrorism by the state or other groups

Other common experiences of refugees and asylum seekers after they have fled persecution in their country include:

  • dangerous journeys
  • prolonged uncertainty about the future, protracted limbo
  • extended time spent in refugee camps
  • living in urban centres without legal status
  • limited access to basic needs, extreme hardship
  • overcrowding, poor hygiene, poor nutrition
  • exploitation and discrimination

How does trauma affect people?

A trauma reaction is a common response to the feelings of helplessness, intense fear or horror associated with a personal experience of war or civil conflict. Trauma can also be caused by witnessing or hearing about a traumatic event or being the target of actual or threatened death or injury. For many of our clients there is ongoing trauma due to the fears they hold for loved ones who remain in situations of risk such as their country of origin, refugee camps or other countries where their rights and safety are in jeopardy.

Each person is unique and the impact of trauma will be different for each person. Things that influence the way that trauma affects each person include previous experiences of safety/trauma, migration experiences, family history, age, culture, personality, ways of coping, relationships and support systems. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, male or female: trauma affects people from all walks of life.

Trauma impacts different people in different ways and at different times. For example, some people may notice effects soon after experiencing trauma. For others it may be years later and the changes they notice in themselves may vary. Sometimes it may be hard to see the connection between past trauma and what a person is feeling now.

Despite these variations there are many common experiences that people who have lived through trauma report. Trauma affects individuals on biological, psychological and social levels. Some of these impacts include:

  • hypervigilance: being on alert for danger even in relatively safe environments, and experiencing feelings of panic
  • having trouble sleeping or suffering from nightmares
  • physical complaints that don’t have a clear medical explanation or that may be related to psychological distress
  • injuries, illnesses, chronic pain, psychosomatic issues, little or no appetite
  • anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, irritability, guilt, shame, self-blame, numbness
  • intrusive thoughts, flashbacks about traumatic events, losses and/or fears for the safety of loved ones
  • memory and concentration problems
  • changed sense of self, beliefs and worldview, a sense of disempowerment, loss of self-esteem, feeling like other people can’t be trusted
  • difficulties with personal relationships; social withdrawal

In children you may also notice that they:

  • are becoming withdrawn, sad, nervous or aggressive
  • are acting out their bad experiences
  • become distressed when they’re not with family

Trauma not only impacts individuals; it also impacts families, social support networks, and communities.

Most people are referred to STTARS when either they or someone else notices that these impacts are affecting their daily lives and their relationships with others.

Why do we offer specialised counselling for survivors of torture and trauma?

The majority of refugees have experienced traumatic events before coming to Australia. Many have been brutally tortured, others have seen loved ones killed, or have escaped from a war zone. Many have experienced all three, but all have fled for their lives.

The physical and psychological effects of trauma are devastating and difficult enough to overcome on their own but, when compounded by the challenges of settling into life in an unfamiliar country, can present survivors with a particularly severe and complex set of challenges. This is where counselling can offer a valuable resource to our clients’ healing journey.

Although people from refugee backgrounds have survived horrific experiences they are also people of many strengths, skills and resilience of spirit. STTARS counsellors draw on these strengths as they work alongside survivors to overcome barriers and rebuild new and meaningful lives in Australia.

What is counselling?

Counselling is a process which allows a person to talk with a trained professional about things that are worrying them.

STTARS’ counselling provides a safe, respectful and nurturing environment for people to talk through their problems with qualified counsellors. Our counsellors work together with each person to help develop ways to better manage reactions to new situations, address and resolve problems, and work through their thoughts and feelings. Counselling helps survivors to cope more effectively and regain control over their lives.

Many people think that counselling has something to do with being mentally ill. They may be reluctant to access counselling because they do not want to be viewed in that way. The types of symptoms that survivors experience are often very normal reactions to the terrible events that they have experienced. When survivors are helped - through counselling - to understand their reactions and the reasons they occur it can be very reassuring for them to learn that many of these responses are normal and not a sign of mental illness.

Who are STTARS’ counsellors and how do they work?

STTARS’ counsellors come from a range of professional backgrounds including social work, psychology, welfare, family therapy, youth work and community development. They use a variety of counselling techniques and therapeutic approaches to help people from refugee backgrounds overcome the effects of their experiences.

A number of our counsellors come from refugee backgrounds and are familiar with the cultures and experiences of our diverse client group. Many of our counsellors speak the same languages as our clients but if this is not the case however, we will arrange for a professional interpreter to attend.

STTARS’ staff are acutely aware that the way we see the world, what we value, and the way that we make meaning of our experiences is influenced by culture and life experiences and is different for every person. We are guided in our work by respect for each client’s humanity and individuality. Through our assessment and counselling process we strive to develop a deep understanding of each person’s unique view of themselves and the world, along with their strengths, values and aspirations, so that support can be specifically tailored to each individual.

Counselling follows an appropriately-timed ‘phased approach’ that may include a range of body and mind integrated modalities according to the needs of each individual. Therapeutic phases include:

Relationship Building and Restoring Safety and Trust

Establishing a relationship of safety and trust is essential for trauma work to commence. This phase includes building a therapeutic relationship and providing some practical support to ensure that basic needs are met and that the person feels some sense of control over their thoughts, feelings and external environment.

Therapeutic Exploration

Once sufficient safety is established a client may choose to enter a phase involving more exploratory work around their traumatic memories. However, clients always maintain control over what they choose to disclose and are not pushed to discuss memories that they do not wish to.

Counsellors work together with each person, at their pace, to explore memories and the meanings attributed to them, and to help clients develop ways to better manage reactions, address and resolve problems, and work through thoughts and feelings.

All support proceeds from an awareness of the inherent strengths of the person, and aims to provide the emotional foundation for recovery and future wellbeing.


In addition to trauma work, STTARS’ counsellors pay significant attention to the client’s relationship with their family. They also focus on assisting clients to find a sense of community, identity, meaning and purpose in their new life in Australia.


The maintenance phase involves a focus on broader issues such as health promotion, community development and capacity building.

STTARS recognises that recovery is not a linear process. Many clients make a remarkable recovery from the ordeal of inhumanity that they suffered at the hands of others and feel they do not need or want to return to STTARS for further assistance. Others may need to return for short periods of time. The maintenance phase eases the way for a person to seek support again if needed.

Throughout the phases described above, STTARS works from a recovery framework to address the psychosocial impacts of torture and trauma on the individual, family and community.

This includes engaging the following recovery goals:

  • To restore safety, enhance control and reduce the disabling effects of fear and anxiety
  • To restore attachment and connections to other human beings and a sense of belonging
  • To restore meaning, identity and justice
  • To restore dignity and value and reduce shame and guilt

For more information about this recovery framework, please read

Rebuilding Shattered Lives