By Mark Han, News Correspondent
Trigger warning: Suicide, Mental Health issues
Over the last two weeks, Woroni has been following developments in mental health at the ANU. In this edition, I will cover the spiritual and cultural impacts of mental health issues, with a focus on international students. Unfortunately, this is also the last edition to be printed on paper this semester. The next part of this article, which will pertain to the administration’s response to mental health on campus, will be published online next week.
May is a melancholic month as a student – assessments start to pile up as the finals beckon, the days become disorientatingly shorter and the nights more eclectic, and the layers of jackets and sweaters continue to pile on backs like books and papers. Everyone’s looking forward to something, be it the doom of finals or the winter holidays.
This month, for some students, began by sending one of their beloved friends their final goodbyes as the hearse departed the church in Turner; a mere minute’s walk from campus where they had studied, lived, and loved. In the emptied driveway, they stood there solemnly with watery eyes as the wind picked up and the sun set behind Black Mountain. All they had now were unforgettable memories of him, in warmer and brighter times.
Father Michael, the priest who performed the funeral ceremony, is a figure of spiritual strength for the Ukrainian Orthodox community. While outwardly quaint, the walls of the church where he practices are decorated with paintings of the patron saints of the Orthodox faith, honour rolls written in Cyrillic and the distinguishable three-bar cross of the Church.
It is surprisingly similar to any other church, but it has its idiosyncracies. A child of refugees from the Soviet Union, Father Michael is devoted to his ancestral homeland, like many others in the small Ukrainian Australian community of Canberra.
However, this small community has been rocked by two suicides in the past eighteen months. The profiles of these tragedies were remarkably similar – they were both young men, students of the ANU and within touching distance of finishing their degrees. One of those young men was Father Michael’s own son, who was also part of the Woroni community in 2014.
“My faith is this only thing that keeps me going every day,” he confided, “I miss him every day.”
Father Michael’s family has struggled to move on since his son’s passing. The pride and joy of a successful son and brother were replaced with unanswerable questions and unfixable regrets. “We could talk all day about what I could’ve done as a father in the past,” he said as he showed a picture of his son. “Nothing will bring him back.”
The raw wounds were reopened when he was told of another death, a young Ukrainian international student who had attended service at his church. He immediately tracked down the father of the student, who had flown across the world to Australia as soon as he received the news.
“I felt like the only person who could understand him; his language and his pain,” Father Michael mused. “Us Ukrainians have been through many tragedies as a people, and we always band together in times of suffering.”
On May 9, ANUSA, PARSA and the ANU administration hosted the inaugural Mental Health in Higher Education symposium at the China in the World Centre. Among the invitees was Dr. Benjamin Veness, a doctor and an emerging leader in Australian public health policy.
Dr. Veness authored The Wicked Problem of University Student Mental Health, a comprehensive report on university mental health. It offered seven broad recommendations for universities to improve mental health support. One of the key findings was the unfamiliarity of Western psychological and psychiatric treatment from the perspective of Asian international students.
This is an area in which another panellist, Dr. Helen Forbes-Mewett conducted research in. Dr Helen Forbes-Mewett has published numerous studies and articles pertaining to the welfare of international students in Australia, and led the cultural diversity in mental health workshop at the symposium.
Both Dr. Veness and Dr. Forbes-Mewett encouraged universities to employ multi-lingual counsellors and GPs to facilitate better care for international students on campus and greater engagement with the international student community.
However, the problem for international student support at the ANU is three-fold. In Dr. Forbes-Mewett’s report, she mentioned the lower rates of international student engagement with counselling services, while the unfamiliarity with established Western methods of treating mental health issues would also reduce the efficacy of treatment for patients.
Moreover, another unprecedented issue is the multitude of backgrounds in ANU’s international student body. The cultural diversity of the ANU is celebrated, but also presents an inherent predicament for the student associations and the ANU administration in the field of mental health.
Dr. Forbes-Mewett described the language barrier as a significant problem for international students, as they could not seek advice in their own language. Furthermore, neither could they easily obtain resources in their native language that could guide them towards treatment.
Despite the high numbers of international students at the ANU, resources dedicated to mental wellbeing in languages other than English are few and far between. Harry Feng, the president of the International Students Department at the ANU, expressed caution of favouring one demographic over others, fearing further disconnect for students already isolated from the domestic mainstream on campus.
However, he was hopeful that mental health awareness for international students would be improved soon with further cooperation with the ANU administration and ANUSA in the lead-up to International Week next semester.
Julian Wong is currently a PhD candidate for psychology, researching on the ways in which mental health support could be more culturally sensitive. The cultural sensitivity not only pertains to mere language, but also the multitude of factors which cultural identities have been grown around, such as family values, religion and many more.
Julian’s work strives to create a framework from which psychiatric and psychological services could draw upon when treating patients who have grown up in an environment that differs from contemporary Australian or Western culture. Currently his research focuses on the cultural sensitivities of the Sinosphere (a group of East Asian countries historically influenced by China) where a majority of ANU’s international (and even many domestic) students hail from.
His research into the cultural tendencies of the Sino-sphere, which furthers Dr. Forbes-Newett’s findings of lower rates of help-seeking for international students, could result in more targeted assistance for students with problems that may seem strange to a counsellor without prior knowledge or experience of the culture.
He also noted that this research could be expanded into other cultural spheres in the future, but currently he is focusing his research on a culture which he has an intimate understanding of – the one which he grew up with in Hong Kong, shared by many in the university and throughout the world.
In a meeting a week after the funeral, Father Michael lamented the scarcity of varenyky (dumplings) and Ukranian vodka in Australian stores, but noted the easy availability of jiaozi (the Chinese equivalent) and rice wine at the local Chinese grocer. “(My) community is small, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like home,” he said.
Father Michael was then interrupted by a parishioner and spoke to her in fluent Ukrainian. “People in the community come to me for different problems,” he said as he walked back into the room. “I still think of how I could have helped my son every single day.”
“I know how hard University can be. I went back to the ANU to study psychology a few years ago and I fully understand how hard assignments and other things can be. I wish that he could’ve told me more about what was going on,” He continued.
“I just wish my son was still alive.”
Father Michael was the second person in that week I heard speak those words – only this time it did not need to be translated from Ukrainian. The pain that was felt however, was exactly the same as the breezy dusk in the driveway outside a week before . Pain rarely has boundaries, unlike languages, cultures or generations.
The article will continue online next week.
If you need mental health support you can call these numbers:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Beyondblue: 1300 224 636
For Olek & Matthew – two friends I never had, two friends I write this article for. Rest in peace. Your fathers and friends miss you dearly.