Time for an Awakening: Overcoming the Adversity of Culture and Stigma

CW: suicide, dist. thoughts

In March 2016, international student Zhikai Liu committed suicide by jumping off the balcony of his 21st floor apartment. Travelling more than 9000 kilometres from China to study in Melbourne, Liu found himself in an extremely challenging situation. He was unable to keep up with his study load, had difficulty socialising with local students, and became more and more distant from his long-distance girlfriend. As a result, Liu started to experience serious insomnia and depression, occasionally expressing suicidal thoughts when he was alone in the apartment. Unfortunately, he refused to seek any medical assistance, and insisted he was fine.

On 5 March 2016, Liu expressed his desire to focus on improving his English, rather than spend time at university. He was then told by his father to give the decision some thought. The next day, after a conversation about Liu’s academic and life predicament, Liu’s sister heard him walking towards the kitchen and muttering to himself, “Why is life so difficult? Why do we always have to make difficult decisions?”.

Then the tragedy happened.

In investigating Liu’s suicide, Coroner Audrey Jamieson instructed the Coroners Prevention Unit (CPU) to analyse suicides of other international students in Victoria. To find out what might be distinctive about the deaths, the CPU studied the circumstances of the 27 international student suicides and a cohort of suicides among Australian-born students. The findings by the CPU include the following:

  • A lower prevalence of diagnosed mental illness among the international student suicides (14.8%) than in the Australian-born student suicide cohort (66.7%)
  • Only 22.2% of the international student suicide cohort attended a health service for a mental health related issue within six weeks of death. By contrast, 57.1% of the Australian-born student suicide cohort had such an attendance within six weeks of death.

Studies have also found that international students in Australia are less likely than domestic students to seek assistance for mental health issues because of cultural, financial, linguistic and other hurdles. In a paper published by Dr Helen Forbes-Mewett and Dr Anne-Maree Sawyer, three factors are identified to heighten the stress experienced by international students:

  1. The experience of new and often unfamiliar academic practices;
  2. The broad range of knowledge and practical skills needed to manage day-to-day living in Australia;
  3. The tendency to delay professional help-seeking for mental health problems.

What we can learn from Liu’s story

When I first came across the news about Liu’s suicide, I blanched and pondered deeply over his last words. Reflecting on the very beginning of my time in this country, I experienced a similar type of anxious feeling. Why is life so hard? Why are there so many choices? Why are there so many decisions that need to be made?

Famous existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described this anxious feeling as the dizziness of freedom, that of crippling possibility, of the boundlessness of one’s existence. Reading the existentialist philosophy was an enlightening process for me. I view this as a precious opportunity to fully grasp my own choices, responsibility, freedom and true being. Anyway, this is slightly off our topic. What is more important here is the cultural stigma international students are facing.

Liu’s suicide shows how international students are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues. There are way more students out there sitting in their own room desperately in need of help. They either don’t know how they can seek assistance, or they simply to refuse to talk to anyone about their issues. Writing from my experience as a native Chinese, the problem for students coming from Asian cultural background, I believe, lies in our inherent conservative cultural values regarding mental health.

Mental health has always been regarded as a taboo in many cultures. Particularly in the Chinese culture, the focus is always on physical health rather than the health of our mind. Emotional or psychological symptoms associated with mental health issues are rarely the topic of conversation. This probably has to do with the “keeping face” culture in Asia, where people fear that talking about their mental health would be a sign of weakness, and could bring shame on themselves and their families.

What’s even more disappointing to me is how some people still express their resistance to the ‘western’ way of treating mental health. They believe it wouldn’t do anything to solve ‘eastern’ problems. This stigma would further undermine one’s confidence of his or her ability to overcome their mental illness. It will lead to people to define themselves by their illness rather than who they are as an individual.

Based on that, here are some of the ways I’ve learnt to deal with the stigma:

  • Get the medical assistance you need as soon as possible. The effects of mental illness, if not dealt with in reasonable time, would lead to further harms to your physical health.
  • Do not let mental illness define who you are. Rather than saying ‘I’m depressed’, say ‘I have depression”. In order to find your true self, you should view yourself as a confident and capable individual.
  • Don’t pay attention to the negative and stigmatising comments. Mental illness is not a sign of weakness and is rarely something you can deal with on your own. Talking about your mental health issues with healthcare professionals will help you further along on your road to recovery or management. Remember that other people’s judgements often come from a lack of understanding rather than anything else. These judgments are typically made before they get to know you, so don’t believe that their views have anything to do with you personally.
  • Connect with others. Joining a mental health support group can help you deal with feelings of isolation and make you realise that you’re not alone in your feelings and experiences. You can also talk to your close friends, relatives and families about your issues.

Written by Dave Yan Sima

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News Flash: We aren’t having the correct discussion about mental health

Every now and then it is important to acknowledge how far we have come. Mental illness is now seen as a genuine grievance worthy of compassion and empathy. All major political parties in Australia have mental health funding as a primary policy objective. Men can open up about their struggle with depression or anxiety without it been seen as an affront to their masculinity. This was only made possible through millions of people choosing to have a more honest discussion of the reality of mental illness.

In the spirit of this gratitude, I want to talk about the danger of people who choose to over-simplify and cheapen the issue of mental health. The particular example I have in mind is the rise of ‘shortcuts to mental health’. The content is usually banal and self-explanatory, with advice such as ‘get enough sleep’, ‘meditate every morning’ and ‘learn to be happy.’ There is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of advice, but …

The problem is that they imply a simplicity to your mental health that just isn’t true. They enforce the illusion that your mental health is some kind of sickness that you fix by treating the symptoms.

I’m sorry folks, but that just ain’t how it works. Whether it is out of ignorance, or a deliberate choice to get clicks by piggy backing off a hot topic, this hurts those of us who still or will struggle with mental illness.

I decided to write about this after I was asked to speak at the 2019 Wellness for Law forum. At the panel, I was asked “What have you found to be the most effective strategy for maintaining your psychological well-being?”

The question bothered me because of how it painted the issue of mental health. It assumed that it was some kind of easy problem that could be fixed with just a few words of advice. Now, I’ll admit that I’m not an expert in mental health. But I can speak from my own experiences, and the hundreds of people who I have talked to about their mental health, to know there is some element of truth to what I’m about to say.

A mental health ‘strategy’ implies that if you execute the following steps correctly, everything will work out. It pushes forward this idea that so long as you’re eating right, and sleeping right, then you will feel better all the time. Even though each of these things are vitally important, we have to think about our well-being holistically. It’s about developing a consideration of our mental well-being as something that is one of, if not the most important aspect of our life.

One of the major themes of the Wellness for Law forum was resilience.

Namely, how can we develop resilience within ourselves so that we can deal with the trials and tribulations of life. Life is just going to get tougher after university, and that is the truth. Anyone that has gone through any kind of hardship knows that you can’t learn resilience. You experience something difficult, you suffer, and resilience manifests itself within you.  It’s not a reward that you get after you complete something. It’s a state of mind that develops once you begin to think in a different way.

Bertrand Russel once said that “if something can be said in a nutshell, that’s where it belongs”. Unfortunately, happiness doesn’t lie at the end of reading a well-being article or at the bottom of a to do list (don’t worry, the irony of me proclaiming this on a website about well-being isn’t lost on me). The solution is much deeper and far more complex than that, and depends on your own willingness to question the structure that have governed your life up until now. I am not saying there is no worth to Buzzfeed listing tips & tricks on wellbeing, but we need to keep the search within ourselves to find real meaning from life. This meaning is what will lead to resilience, and this resilience is what is crucial keeping mental illness at bay.

Written by Christian Lane

 

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First Year Blues: A Short Story on Choosing Your Friends & Your Clothes

First year of law school.

Not easy.

But definitely not as intimidating as you may think.

For me, what worried me most wasn’t just law school being intimidating and hard. It was saying goodbye to my comfortable high school routines, saying goodbye to wearing a uniform, and most unfortunately, saying goodbye to my two best friends who, both coincidentally, moved across the globe for uni. Yeah. I know. To me at the time, it was definitely the worst thing that could possibly happen going into Uni.

I was always someone who enjoyed the convenience of uniform. Summer – put on summer dress, white socks, brown shoes, and if I remembered, a ribbon in my hair.

Winter – a little more complicated… put on my white shirt, my tie, my stockings and my skirt. If it was cold, my jumper and blazer too. Six years of wearing the same uniform allowed me to never have to stress about outfits in the morning.

Uni just wasn’t the same. I remember waking up Monday morning for my first ever Crim lecture. 9am. Yeah…that was already 30 minutes later than high school starting. Should be easy right? NO. Picking an outfit for my first day at uni was actually a chore! I broke a sweat trying on the five jumpers and four (very much the same) pairs of leggings. Thank goodness I had my favourite pair of shoes at the time, otherwise the shoe choosing process could have left me missing my first lecture.

Three years down the track, I can definitely see how I was making a massive deal over a first world problem. But everything feels like a big deal in First Year.

So to anyone starting their first year, I just want to say it’s normal to panic and stress over things you have never worried about before, and it’s normal to not always be on top of everything. Just remember, first year is the best year to learn how uni life differs from high school and to start some new routines. Clearly, I could have laid the outfit out the night before, but being the last minute person I am- I didn’t.

Friends.

A lot of the time, our uni experience is very much dependent on the friends we have and the people we meet. Going into uni while my two best friends across the world, definitely made me feel like I “had no friends”. Each time I spoke to someone in a lecture and they told me “I’m hanging with my high friends friends tonight, we’re going out for a few drinks!” I couldn’t help but wonder how much easier and better life would be if I had my best friends. I would message them and tell them how much I missed them, and consequently start missing high school and my comfort circle. As the year went on, I realised, the only thing stopping me from meeting new people was my constant wish for my best friends to be here by my side. I learnt the importance of taking myself out of my own shell and stepping out into a new world where new people and opportunities are not as daunting as my mind makes it out to be. I realised there were people in similar positions as me and I wasn’t alone in feeling lonely and awkward.

There is always someone out there that will be your best friend, someone you will connect with, and someone you will go through uni with.

I just needed to find them, just like I had to find my best friends back in high school.

Written by Dian Liu (Co-founder)

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We Asked How Law Students Deal With Stress. Here’s What They Said.

As a 4th year, I’ve had about eight semesters to figure out how to handle stress during exam time. Yet, for some reason I still make the same mistake of leaving all my revision to the last minute, and then flip-flop between nonchalance and angsty crying.

If you’re not feeling incredibly overwhelmed by the amount of content you have to get through in such a short week, then you’re a much better student than I am. But for the rest of us who may need some ideas on how to deal with all the low-key panicking, we asked a bunch of law students how they cope during the exam period.

1

“I like to break down the work I have to do, make to do lists and set achievable goals every day so I don’t feel too overwhelmed” – Elsie, 4th Year

“I deal with exam stress by having a detailed revision plan. By doing that, all of the workload can be visualised in the schedule and it stops me from overestimating or underestimating the pressure I could potentially be facing when preparing for the exams.”- Dave, 3rd year 

“I write down all the tasks I have to do, (using the important and urgent way of categorising if easier) and then schedule out my day/week. It helps me realise my tasks aren’t as insurmountable as it seems. I also schedule in a good amount of exercise and recreation to get my mind working creatively in a non study way”- Aashritha, 4th Year

“I make a daily study timetable to make sure I keep on top of my exam revision. I also think its important to maintain the balance between study and still doing the things you enjoy from day to day. “- Georgia, 4th Year

“I make sure my working environment, whether it’s my room or my study, is clean and tidy. There is so much research about having a clean working environment and how it can declutter your mind and make you feel so much better and more relaxed.”- Sam, 4th Year

“I try to have a study plan and stick to it. Do past year papers with friends and review the content together as it is makes studying less burdensome. It is also important to get sufficient sleep”- Priya, 3rd Year 

“I do what I find easiest first – for example, the easiest questions first – and get into the rhythm of doing work which encourages me to get into study” –Sarah, 2nd Year

2

“I make sure I prioritise exercise and getting outdoors! Going for a run or a walk after a big day of study is the best remedy for me!”- Liz, 4th Year 

“Even during the stressful exam period, it is important to always remember balance. Sometimes exercising or going out with friends can lead me to study better and have better concentration”- Dian, 2nd Year 

“Don’t forget to get some daily exercise, it helps with the stress” – Bahe, 2nd year

“I like to meal prep before SWOTVAC! That way I don’t have to worry so much about making lunch or dinner throughout the week”- Jane, 5th Year

“My tip would be to make sure you exercise – it can give you more energy and make you study more efficiently and also definitely don’t do it alone – it is best to share the pain!” – Harry, 5th Year

“When the stress gets really bad, my sisters and I blast some music and have a 5 minute dancing sesh”- Anon 

“Exercising- even if you don’t think you have the time. I always find time to get out and release some endorphins. It allows me to focus so much more when I’m working”- Sam, 4th Year

3

Meditation is HUGE. I value it so much. Even just 5-10 minutes of mindfulness meditation makes me feel so much more relaxed and focused and stress-free.”- Sam, 4th Year

“If I start to feel anxious, I do breathing exercises” – Jane, 5th year

“I have a creative outlet such as playing guitar and singing “- Carol, 4th Year

“I schedule out (whether it be in a calendar or diary) some down time! Whether it be to do yoga, read a book or go for dinner with friends. Scheduling downtime allows me to look forward to something when I’m studying and helps maintain a healthy balance” –Francesca 4th Year

“I deal with stress by meditating because it helps me to be at ease with my thoughts. Guided meditation apps are really helpful for starting out” –Wayne, 4th Year 

“Whenever I get too stressed, I put everything down, go outside and take a walk. Just soaking up all the things that are going on around me really lends perspective and makes me remember that these exams are only a small part of my life. Whether it’s the wind blowing through the trees or watching a dog run around, it really does wonders for my perspective”- Leo, 4th Year

I remind myself that whatever happens, my grades don’t define my worth. You are so much more than an arbitrary number out of 100. Just do your best and that’ll always be enough”- Christian, 3rd Year

4

“I make sure to schedule time to catch up with friends over a nice brunch or go shopping and not feel guilty about having a break“- Georgia, 4th Year

“I love blocking out time to spend with friends who keep me grounded and are fun to be around. I always leave in a good mood and energised to tackle my studies”- Ash, 4th Year 

5

“I just remember that everybody has to go through the same shit “- Tommy, 4th year 

 

By Ashley Chow (Co-founder)