real life

'At 22, I moved to Melbourne from India to pursue my dream. Then the pandemic hit.'

This post deals with mental health issues and self-harm and might be triggering for some readers.

I moved to Melbourne in February 2019 for my Master's degree at the University of Melbourne. 

At 22 years old, this felt like an incredible achievement. 

My dream of living in a foreign country and studying at a globally ranked university was coming true. I wanted to challenge myself at university, meet people from all over the world, and immerse myself in Australian culture. 

No one imagined that in a year’s time we’d all be locked down in our homes.

Watch: Things You Never Say In 2021. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

At first, university shifted online “temporarily” and as I had just moved in with my current partner, it made sense for me to stay here and continue on with my degree. 

Online university was, however, quite challenging. Student interaction was at an all-time low, lecturers were struggling with student engagement and their own mental health, and no one had any answers. 

As an international student, I had no friends or family in Australia. 

Lockdowns took away opportunities I would otherwise have had to go out and build these relationships. My partner was the only person I could talk to and he became my only source of learning about Australia.

There were moments when things were really bleak. My friends spoke about their struggles with mental health often and thoughts of self-harm. My family and I realised we would be separated for an indefinite amount of time. I became anxious about graduating in the middle of a pandemic and trying to build a life as an expat from my bedroom.

Even now, I feel sad knowing that almost two years into the pandemic things aren’t very different.

I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my family will miss out on a lot of big events in my life and vice versa, I may never see my grandparents again and unfortunately, besides getting vaccinated and following rules, there isn’t much else that I can do.

It is easy to feel a loss of self and nihilistic at such a time. There were, and still are, days when I feel completely overwhelmed. I know that I am not alone in that. 

As a person of South Asian descent, I found it very challenging to discuss my mental health and ask for help; this is often stigmatised in our community.

I realised that I needed help when I had more bad days than good. I became tired of feeling sad and angry.

The first step to recovery was opening up and starting a chat. I spoke to my partner about how I had been feeling, which in turn allowed him to open up to me as well. 

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Once I stopped repressing my feelings, it gave me the space I needed to think about what I could do next. There was never any magic solution to feeling better. Instead, it was a series of small things and a lot of work. 

I started by ending each day with a celebration of my small wins: submitting an assignment on time, applying for a job, or baking my favourite cookies. 

I focused my attention on the things that I could still do that mattered. 

For instance, I volunteered remotely with 180 Degrees Consulting to help other not-for-profits increase their impact. 

I found new ways to connect with my friends and family: sharing relatable Instagram reels, playing online games, or having virtual dance parties. 

These activities helped me heal, but they also did something more: they allowed the people I loved to open up about their struggles and feelings. 

My sister and I cried together on Zoom, my professor opened up to me about thoughts of self-harm, my friends opened up to me about loneliness and fears of their own mortality. I in turn was able to help support them through their struggles, just as they supported me. 

My experiences are just one example of the impact of starting important conversations.

We need to encourage more dialogue to help people, especially young people, get the support they need. 

This is the premise of #ChatStarter, a national online initiative to help young people across Australia. I was involved in the development of this program, which essentially promotes the benefits of supportive conversations with young people and children who are going through a difficult time right now. 

#ChatStarter encourages people to use the resources available on the Department of Health’s Head to Health website to help them have important conversations, whether big or small. 

This might look similar to how I started conversations with those around me, or it might be baking with your child, or even a DIY craft session over Zoom with loved ones we can’t see face to face. We never know what someone is going through until we create a space for them to share comfortably.

Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

Though life is unpredictable right now and we still don’t have good answers for what will happen next, we can choose to go on. 

We can choose to talk about how we feel, to get the support we need, and to do the same for the ones we love. 

The pandemic will end. Prioritising our mental health now can ensure that we come out the other side ready and better equipped to continue moving forward. 

How you can get involve: 

  • Encourage everyone to visit www.headtohealth.gov.au to learn more about #ChatStarter and how to start and continue a chat safely.
  • Film a short video (30 seconds) or share a post about your experience, and what helps spark a conversation. (You can find #ChatStarter stickers on Giphy by searching @chatstarter)
  • Share your video or photograph on your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok using the hashtag #ChatStarter

If you need help please call, Lifeline 13 11 14 (www.lifeline.org.au), Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 (www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au), Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (www.kidshelpline.com.au), MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 (www.mensline.org.au) or Beyond Blue Support Service 1300 22 4636. 

Feature Image: Supplied.