What Do Our Parents Think of Mental Health?

“I don’t want them to worry or stress them out, what can they do when I am so far away? They might also misunderstand and think moving away from family was a bad decision,”

Often we think of the older generation as orthodox, and traditional, and unwilling to adopt the ideas of younger minds. To further understand this issue, we delve into the reasons why mental health is such a taboo conversation to have with our elders.

Considering international students experience profound change and separation from the familiarity of family, friends and language they are inevitably more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and eating disorders compared to other groups. A study in the Journal of International Students by Dr. Forbes and Dr. Sawyer in 2016 saw that there are higher levels of mental illness symptoms in international students compared to their native counterparts.

International students and immigrant children alike believe their parent’s societal upbringing has made them sensitive or harsh to mental health and in fear of negative parental response, they tend to hide mental suffering. Most of us may find that our parents view mental health issues as unacceptable, often refusing to entertain the idea that they themselves or their child may be affected.

Carly Johnco, a clinical psychologist undertook a study with Macquarie University Sydney in 2018, found that parent’s depression literacy and depression stigma impacted parental communication.

The result is a total lack of mental health communication between children and their parents. Generally speaking, international students feel the gravity of this much more than local students – juggling between academic performance, social life and economic factors is no easy feat.

Dr Zala Volcic, a professor of intercultural communications and media studies at Monash University, attributes the communication difficulty to generational and cultural divides.

In the case of students who temporarily reside in Australia, these generational and cultural gaps are further exacerbated by geographical separation. For Vietnamese-born international student, Ngoc Le Duyen, being geographically far from her parents restricts mental health talks.

“I don’t want them to worry or stress them out, what can they do when I am so far away? They might also misunderstand and think moving away from family was a bad decision,” she said.

However, others find that beyond the fear of burdening their parents there is a feeling of total disapproval by the parents caused by stigma.

“Universally mental illness is stigmatised, but even more in Asian cultures,” Dr Volcic said. Due to the collectivist nature of Asian societies, there are clear divides between public and private life.

“Intimate problems, illnesses and psychological problems stay strictly within the family domain,” she further elaborated.

Dr Volcic believes media plays a crucial role in breaking down “public versus private dealings with mental health… to trigger debate… and address sensitivities.” To see media address mental health on TV, through advertising, or any other media forms are crucial for “deshaming” inner struggles.

Considering positive mental health as something all societies strive for, media engagement with mental health can also create spaces for common understanding, and in that, break down stigmas or stereotypes. Something international students commonly face when relocating.

For international students and second-generation immigrants, it is normal to have parents who have been exposed to traumatic physical and mental situations, therefore expressing their own problems may either seem minuscule in comparison or sensitive territory.

Calvin French, an international student from South-Africa believes the countries consciousness during the Boer Wars, WWI, and WWII continues to reverberate in South-African culture.

“Soldiers and their families felt the effect of war, PTSD mainly, but it was never fully addressed and recognised as an actual problem,” he said.

International students and immigrant children especially find it difficult to express their mental wellbeing with parents, the first obvious barrier being language; not just english but also mental health literacy.

French admits to the awkwardness when his mum does ask the “How are you?” question.

“It’s weird – we never talk about those things, so I just say not bad and she doesn’t push,” French extends.

Randall Hua, a second-generation immigrant to Vietnamese refugees never vocalised his feelings. “Knowing mum and dad struggled, physically, economically, emotionally and mentally – I don’t think it would be smart opening up, I imagine like all refugees who left their country of origin due to political unrest, they want to leave the past in the past and focus on their new life here,” he said.

Randall, who communicates in a mixture of English and Vietnamese with his parents says, “My Vietnamese gets me by but I don’t know how to articulate serious topics.”

Difficulty in verbal communication is a major barrier to mental well-being. “Specific lingo is hard to explain, let alone express. It really is easier finding different outlets to talk, like friends who find themselves in a similar dynamic,” Randall said.

Although it takes time, often it is worth slowly explaining mental health to elders and try to eliminate any past preconceptions of the issue. As for the young, it is important to be educated and prepared for situations regarding mental health.

It is crucial to not carry the same stigmas and stereotypes that older generations may hold as a result of a strict societal upbringing. Speaking candidly and honestly to elders, despite the difficulty may be equally as rewarding for you as it is them.

For students who are unable to talk to a loved one, here are some resources that can come in handy:

Specialised helpline for International Students:

General help:

Support for Queer Identifying Individuals:

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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