My most memorable struggle with mental health could only be described as a roller coaster of emotions that lasted for 18 months. At the peak, I was having panic attacks every two days. I felt so much shame around it. It certainly did not help that I was an international student in New Zealand without any family for support. I have always struggled with my mental health to varying degrees at various points in my life. But, this took the cake as one of my worst and longest struggles with mental health.
As an international student, you have a couple of challenges. One of the biggest challenges is navigating cultural nuances. It is easy to make friends but far more difficult to actually make a real connection. So, when bad things happen, you can feel incredibly alone and isolated. Within two weeks, I got cruelly dumped, my family dog back home died, and the handful of friends that I did make decided that a regular house party was better than celebrating my 21st birthday with me. I felt so alone and believed that no one cared for me and that I had nothing to contribute to the world. I also believed that, for all those reasons, I didn’t deserve to be here. There were nights when I found myself sitting on the balcony of my apartment just gasping for air because the apartment felt so suffocating, and the world felt so suffocating.
Something needed to give, and I didn’t want it to be me.
As I stood on my balcony and stared down towards the street, I decided that it was time to seek help. But, every step of the way, I had some kind of minor roadblock towards booking an appointment with university counselling which made me justify putting it off. You needed to know your health insurance number, which frankly I forgot when filling out the form, so that presented enough of a barrier for me to put it off for a couple of months. Then, the second time, I needed to wait until there was a spot for me. Booking it felt so pointless. I mean, I could get better in a few months, right? Wrong.
When I came home, my family, unaware of my struggles, started to think that I became unmotivated and lazy. And, I don’t blame them. They didn’t know I was depressed. Heck, I didn’t even know. But, one day, as I was out doing errands for my family, I drove past a counselling centre. Upon setting my first appointment, I remember telling a close friend about it. And, though well-meaning, I found her response to it a little troubling. “Good on you, Mel. But, don’t let going to therapy tell you that something is wrong with you.”, she said. This made me realise: my actions and these words were a clear reflection of our culture when it came to mental health.
Food for thought: Why is it that we are quick to encourage other people to seek help and commend them for doing it? But somehow, when it comes to us, we would instead avoid confirmation of the issue via an official diagnosis and treat it. When it comes to issues around mental health, there’s an apparent dichotomy between what we say we believe and what we actually believe. We seem to empower anybody else but ourselves.
As I sat there, I remember feeling like I could feel my heartbeat in my chest. What if she judges me for this? My problems seemed so stupid. But it wasn’t anything like that. Dr. Yap was kind and listened to every word I had to say whilst maximising on her tissue box. I was diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. We even set a schedule for me to go through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which helped me heaps! I was able to look at managing my problems and eventually I did get better! And now, I am as happy and content as I can be living in New Zealand with an amazing set of friends who now feel like family.
And of course, as an international student from a conservative culture, I know how telling loved ones about these things is daunting. And, no matter how optimistic some sites can be, the honest truth is that sometimes the reaction you get can be very disheartening. But, if it offers any comfort at all, this is usually just an initial reaction. From my personal experience and others as well, any negative response is usually more about them than you. I am in no place to offer specific advice, but I do think time will heal.
If you’re isolated and abroad, just know this: you’re not alone. I’ve talked to plenty of people in the same situation as us. Some spend the better part of their first few years just crying every night. You can do this, and you’re not alone.