Breaking the taboo: Mental health in immigrant communities
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With young, white Australians dominating Australia's mental health campaigns, immigrant communities often find it difficult to ask for help.

Breaking the taboo: Mental health in immigrant communities

by Sachi Kodagoda See Profile
Sydney NSW, Australia
24th Jan 2019
Breaking the taboo: Mental health in immigrant communities

In the past decade, Australia has seen a massive shift in the level and clarity of conversations around mental health in the public sphere. This has in turn strengthened community understanding and awareness of the subject. However, this shift in conversation has only privileged certain communities in its reach. Its effect has not yet been fully realised in other community sectors, particularly in Australia’s immigrant population.

Born and bred Sydneysider Kiara’s* parents migrated to Australia in 1985. She was in Year 8 when she first realised she was struggling with her mental health. She was bullied, and felt insecure about not fitting in with her Catholic school Caucasian peers, at a school that her mother had worked so hard to get her into. While she wasn’t sure whether it was just a case of teenage angst, she knew her feelings were a turning point for her mental health when she began to develop a crippling sense of anxiety and self-doubt

Kiara explained that her South-East Asian upbringing made it difficult for her to confide in her family at the time, and she wasn’t able to fully understand the feelings herself.

“I knew you could feel sad or happy, but I had no real understanding of the gray area in-between,” – Kiara

Being the daughter of immigrant parents, there was always a pressure to not just be okay but to be doing great. Anything less would have implied a sense of ungratefulness for the sacrifices her parents had made or for the life she had been given. Mental health was such a taboo subject in her world that therapy and seeking outside counsel for her feels were not options.

While her internal conflicts grew, Kiara continued to keep up appearances by graduating high school and starting university, doing just what was expected of her in her community. As time passed and more ugly, real-life traumas reared their heads, Kiara repeated the habits she had learnt all her life by brushing her sadness aside. This series of unaddressed conflicts and emotional repressions led to her having her first panic attack. Confused and fulling understanding what had happened - she left it alone.

The second time, when it happened at her place of work, Kiara knew she had to do something about the intensity of her feelings. She contacted the mental health unit at her local hospital and was voluntarily hospitalised for a brief period, just enough time for her to gather her thoughts and focus on herself. She eased her university study to part-time, and used the extra time to validate her anxious thoughts and feelings, to understand that they were real and needed a place to be explored no matter how unhelpful it was at times. She is now more open with her family now and reflecting back she explained that she wished her mother had been more open with her own mental health struggles dealing with moving to a whole new country and having to start from scratch.

Kiara’s story is not an uncommon one by any means, we hear incarnations of this story from young Australians all the time. That said, it is a rarity that someone with her cultural background has spoken publicly about their mental health struggles. The stigma of mental illness in South Asian cultures is very real and has devastating effects, with research showing that despite that rapid growth in these communities, there is an alarming lack of substantial research concerning mental illness in these populations.

Niharika is a part of headspace’s Youth National Reference group; a group of 20 young people between 12 and 25 whose job is to give feedback for the projects run by headspace. She too was admitted to hospital in 2015 for her own mental issues which were directly related to the lack of communication and ignorance within her family about the subject.

Niharika believes that the main reason for the gap in communication regarding the importance of looking after your mental health between the children and parents from these communities in Australia is not due to a lack of love or coming from a place of malice. It is merely a lack of understanding. “There is a fear of the unknown”, she states and while may Australians grew up with the destigmatizing language surrounding mental health, the very language used to talk about mental can be alienating to families from migrant backgrounds. Initiatives like ‘R U OK day’ may be effective in starting the conversation about mental wellbeing. However, there is an assumed level of understanding engrained within this language that not everyone shares. Making the subject approachable to all communities is a crucial tool in breaking the taboos around it in migrant communities.

Niharika went on to explain how the conversations in her own household have changed through communication. Now when she has a bad mental health day, her parents ask questions like, “How can I help you feel better?” rather than “What happened to make you cry?”. This acknowledges that the problem is not something external to Niharika that has a quick fix. “Open, honest communication with compassion”, she stresses, is the only way to move forward and shift attitudes and destigmatize mental illness within these communities.

It is predominantly young, white Australians who approach headspace for counsel and due to this, there is a lack of research and practical solutions for young people from immigrant backgrounds experiencing depression, anxiety and other mental health struggles. Constantly seeing a white face as the figurehead for your struggle is alienating and can be hard to identify with. It is vitally important to communicate and reach out if you are struggling with your emotions and wellbeing regardless of your background, your feelings are always valid and deserve to be cared for.


*Names have been changed to protect the identity of source.

ReachOut, Headspace or Kids Helpline can help if you or someone you know is struggling with their mental wellbeing.

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Sachi Kodagoda

About Sachi Kodagoda

A perfect cliché of an immigrant girl who only really cares about social justice and intersectional feminism. When I’m not passionately/tearfully arguing for I believe in I spend my time trying to keep my plants alive, petting other people’s dogs and crying over Netflix Christmas specials

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