Foreign accents are signs of bravery. Moving to a foreign country to study in a different language is something many Australians will never do. Living and studying abroad is an adventure filled with endless opportunities but it also comes with many challenges.
Starting a new life in Australia can be the start of a mental health battle. When international students move to Australia they have to jump over many hurdles, some bigger than others. The Black Dog Institute Australia says having supportive social relationships, a sense of control and purpose, family harmony, effective help-seeking and access to good health services are important for optimal mental health. For international students, obtaining these presents significant challenges.
Most international students live paycheck to paycheck, struggle to form friendships, feel ostracised and are under constant pressure to succeed. It’s a lethal cocktail that can result in severe psychological distress. Mental illness is plaguing international students in Australia and they need help.
As Dani Valent, food journalist, advocate and co-founder of the Attica Soup Project, puts it, “When you have people who are here and are in need it’s not a complicated situation. They simply have to be looked after.”
The Attica Soup Project operates out of Attica restaurant in Ripponlea and provides free soup and groceries to temporary visa holders who worked in hospitality prior to the pandemic. Of the fifty-five people that she and Attica’s head chef Ben Shewry, feed each week almost half are international students.
Many of them present bewildered, in survival mode, feeling ground down, and left behind. She receives messages regularly from distressed temporary visa holders and she wishes she could do more to help them.
The exclusion of temporary visa holders from support measures such as the Jobkeeper and Jobseeker payments by the Australian Government during COVID-19 Pandemic, has added to their suffering.
Attica Soup Project
Left untreated, psychological distress severely impacts health and wellbeing. International students contributed over $40 billion to the Australian economy in 2019 and because of their important economic contribution they deserve to be supported. International students are vulnerable. International students are terrified of failing their studies, anxious and depressed and need mental health support. They feel abandoned, and like no one cares about their mental health. They deserve better.
“At some point, there will be no one to back you up. It’s going to be just you.”
International students come to Australia for different reasons. Well prepared for a new life milestone and excited to embrace a new culture, Tugce Bayrakdar came from Turkey to study hospitality management with her husband. A former geneticist, she left her illustrious career to pursue her passion of creating beautiful meals.
Karla Silva felt like an outsider in her home country, Mexico. For her, moving to Australia meant she could get an education, be herself and escape Mexican societal pressures.
When international students touch down in Australia, they embark on a journey of building a life from scratch. It starts with culture shock as they adjust to their new environment. They are reminded of their foreignness daily; leaving them feeling alienated and lonely.
In a study on international students conducted by University of Technology Sydney (UTS), 35% of students said that they felt lonely in Australia and nearly half (47%) felt it was hard to make close friends.
Taseen Shadman left his homeland of Bangladesh for the first time when he came to Australia to complete his Bachelor’s degree
Having lived at home until he moved to Melbourne, he was thrown into the deep end and had to teach himself how to swim very quickly. As an introvert, dealing with a new culture and living independently for the first time caused him to suffer from loneliness. Without his support system in Bangladesh it was difficult for him to ask for help. The loneliness and lack of support started to affect his studies and by the end of his second year he had a nervous breakdown. The experience forced him to become more extroverted and make friends.
My darkest moment…
In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs friends and intimate relationships are crucial to psychological wellbeing. Without them it leads to emptiness and it kicks the brain into fight or flight mode. It forces students into survival mode, and without these important relationships they are unable to thrive.
For those that are not naturally extroverted, forming new friendships can be draining. It is a constant process of trial and error. The desire to share emotions and feelings with new people can increase feelings of hopelessness and alienation.
During Tugce’s first year in Melbourne, her mental health spiralled. She needed friends. Encounters with people were stressful. She wanted to express herself but was afraid if she did people wouldn’t want to befriend her. Knowing that she needed emotional support and knowing she couldn’t get it was torture.
“It is really hard to accept that you have a problem.”