Halfway through my second semester of university in Brisbane, I was brought to the campus clinic by my residential college's director after confessing a latent desire to end my life.
That particular semester had been stressful in weird ways: a relationship going on and off, a boundary violation, and a case of harassment that to this day remains unsolved. This was on top of the stresses of a full-time university workload; formal education never interacted well with my mental health anyway. But my parents were insistent that I get a degree, and so I said that I would get to choose the city and course.
Brisbane was one of my favourite cities to visit while growing up in Malaysia, and my favourite band is from there, so it felt like a good spot. My university had accepted me pretty much immediately during a university fair. I'd already done a semester of university locally so transfers were easy. I chose the Creative Industries, as a lifelong writer with an interest in media and the arts, knowing that I wouldn't really have those kind of opportunities back home. Mostly, as a queer gender-non-conforming immigrant minority, 'back home' didn't feel safe. Australia wasn't guaranteed to be safer - but at least I wasn't really going to be arrested for being queer or a bit of a rabble-rouser.
But, a semester and a half in, the degree wasn't as useful or as accessible as I hoped. Many of the subjects relied on prior knowledge of Australian history and culture, yet my professors and tutors couldn’t appreciate knowledge about other countries that didn’t fit their preconceived superficial notions. Local white students were able to get away with less scrutiny over their work while the work from international students, despite being based on our lived experiences, were deemed “unrealistic”. The university billed itself as “global” but their approach seemed very insular.
I was getting most of the kind of education I was looking for outside the university. I was heavily involved with youth empowerment and social enterprise work and volunteered for all kinds of events and festivals to get a sense of the local arts scene. While study was draining, active community involvement was one of the few things keeping me going as my mental state started to shatter.
As a queer gender-nonconforming immigrant minority, 'back home' didn't feel safe. Australia wasn't guaranteed to be safer but at least I wasn't really going to be arrested for being queer or a bit of a rabble-rouser.
This wasn't the first time my mental health had suffered. My final year of secondary school in Malaysia, I was diagnosed with panic disorder and depression, and was put on regular medication and therapy. This was and still is unusual in Malaysia, where major stigma and a severe lack of psychiatrists & other treatment options stop people from getting help.
Unfortunately, after a couple of years of treatment I had to stop taking my original medication as it was being discontinued by the manufacturer. I didn’t find any psychiatrists or therapists near my Malaysian university, so by the time I’d moved to Australia I’d been off treatment for a while. I had been managing on my own, but the stresses I faced during my second Brisbane semester forced my hand.
If I truly had had my way I would have been focused on working or gaining practical experience. But if I still had to be studying, at least I would have liked a part-time schedule. Maybe even take a semester or two off, do something else, and return when I'm more collected. Perhaps even change my degree completely.
But on an international student visa I was only allowed a full-time study schedule. I could work up to 20 hours a week (including volunteering), though most places wanted at least 25 hours' availability so it's not like paid opportunities were plentiful. I couldn’t take a break, I couldn’t defer, couldn’t fail too many classes. I might have been able to change programs, but that's a whole lot of paperwork. Otherwise I'd lose my visa and I'll have to go back to Malaysia - where my mental health would deteroriate further.
I couldn’t take a break, I couldn’t defer, couldn’t fail too many classes. I might have been able to change programs, but that's a whole lot of paperwork. Otherwise I'd lose my visa and I'll have to go back to Malaysia - where my mental health would deteriorate further.
The campus clinic's doctor prescribed me new medication and signed me up on the mental health care plan that allowed for a certain number of therapy sessions per year. As an international student I have to pay for my own health insurance, but at least in Australia the health insurance company would cover everything Medicare would cover, so I was eligible for a mental health care plan.
This new treatment and medication plan were generally fine. The adjustment period sucked, as with most psychiatric medication, but my prior experiences made me more educated and vocal about the importance of mental health care, so I knew what to look for and how to advocate for myself. But mental health is not something the International Students Director discusses with you. You may be told about counselling, but you're not really given much incentive or permission to make use of your campus counsellor. They definitely do not tell you about anything to do with mental health when you apply for your student visa, apply for your degree, make your move.
What would have happened if I didn't know to ask for help when suicidal? What would have happened if, like most of my peers back home, I didn't know anything about mental health care? Would I have thought to reach out to my director? Would I have been willing to be medicated, willing to open myself up to an unknown therapist? Or would I have internalised my pain, dropped out of school, risked my visa – or my life?
What would have happened if I didn't know to ask for help when suicidal?
I want to say that university got better for me once I was back on treatment; alas that's not really true. I had to wait until the start of my final year to get some disability accommodations in place. In the meantime, I had to struggle through the rest of the year unsupported. For instance, I was the subject of a public shaming email by one of my professors, who thought that me struggling to get into class late because I had immense trouble getting out of bed only to crash out and leave early was me being lazy and disrespectful instead of me wanting - and failing - to push through my depression. With that particular class I ended up pretty close to failing. My mental health did improve once I graduated, though the stresses of trying to find work on a bridging visa (I applied for permanent residency soon after graduation) eventually made it far, far worse. But that's a separate story. I am now a permanent resident with a mental health care finally covered by Medicare.
I often have friends, doctors and therapists ask me what my strategy is to keep going when I'm having severe mental health crises. I have no idea. My only real strategy is 'I have no other choice'. If I didn't power through in university, I'd have to drop out and leave the country (as that would be a breach of my student visa) and might not have been allowed back for good.
I was struggling as a student, despite being a passionate learner and even being on a rare partial scholarship, but being partially checked out was still preferable to dropping out, even if dropping out would have ultimately been better for my sanity. Even now I find it difficult to conceive of taking a break, of dropping out, of reducing my workload as a freelance independent artist busy on multiple projects. How can I? There are things that need to get done and the world isn't going to wait for me to get better.
While study was draining, active community involvement was one of the few things keeping me going as my mental state started to shatter.
I'm someone who was exceedingly lucky in being familiar with mental health care from an early age. Most other international students, especially those from countries like Malaysia where mental health is ignored, wouldn't even really know where to start. They may be reluctant to get help because it may compromise their current or future visas (I had to get a letter from a psychiatrist when I applied for my permanent residency; there was a very real chance I would have been denied because I'd be seen as a 'drain' on Medicare or even some sort of security risk).
International students may have to deal with therapists and counsellors that are just as inexperienced as faculty members in working with diverse cultures, understanding their contexts and giving them advice that isn't always applicable. They may feel like the workload is intense enough that they don't have time for anything else.
They may feel isolated by local students who think they 'bought their way into a university seat', isolated from locals who share their ethnicity but grew up in Australia and thus are somehow less relatable, isolated from even other international students.
They're on their own, just trying to get by, trying not to cause trouble, trying to just focus on their work. I sought help, because I knew that was an option. They might not – they’d just feel like they have to do it themselves.
Creatrix Tiara is a writer, performance artist, producer, media-maker and activist currently based in Melbourne. Follow their work at their website.
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