During Refugee Week, batyr recognises the impact that the refugee experience can have on mental health.
May Lyn is a batyr speaker and a first generation Australian whose parents migrated from Cambodia in the 1980s, having been living in refugee camps following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.
In her culture, there isn’t a word for depression, which made it really difficult for her to speak with her parents about her mental ill-health. This is May Lyn’s story:
Growing up in a Cambodian family in Cabramatta, I learned pretty early on that my Mum and Dad didn’t really understand what mental health was, particularly after their experience with the turmoil back home. The closest word for depression in Cambodian essentially translates to being really sad, which doesn’t really encompass the entire meaning.
Luckily, during this time, a lot of my friends were also first generation Australians and came from cultural backgrounds where mental health is just something you don’t talk about.
Social-mobility is really important in my culture: getting into selective schools, getting good marks, getting the right job to get the high income.
It wasn’t until my first year at uni, studying a double degree in Arts and Primary Education, that I decided to reach out to a counsellor in order to better manage the severe anxiety I was feeling.
I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with the latter a result of an abusive relationship I was in at the time. There were also signs of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) but I was not formally diagnosed.
However, even after diagnosis, I didn’t feel like I could open up to my parents right away, especially my Dad, whose English isn’t as good as my Mum’s.
I didn’t want to explain that I wasn’t in a good head space and that I probably wouldn’t be graduating on time.
A lot of this had to with my own guilt. I felt like I didn’t have a right or didn’t deserve to reach out because of my parents’ own experience migrating from Cambodia to Australia, a country of opportunity and a place where they could raise my brother and I in safety.
The thought of being diagnosed with a mental health issue could not happen: I didn’t want to disappoint them.
It’s clear now that this was also affecting my focus on following through with my mental health care plan: I was flitting between counsellors and I wasn’t engaging the services available. Instead of using coping strategies, I would, for example, lock myself in the bathroom when I had an anxiety attack. Out of sight, out of mind.
It wasn’t until a year later that I spoke with my Mum, but, even then, I wasn’t being fully open, essentially telling her that I was having “a bit of a hard time” but that it was due to the 2-hour travel time to uni.
So instead of being open with her, I transferred to a closer uni and a different course.
I was essentially masking what I really wanted to tell my parents with academic stress. Of course, this wasn’t the full picture of what I was going through.
Eventually, I decided that I needed to be actively working on my mental health and I re-engaged with counselling at my local headspace centre in Liverpool.
I later became more involved with mental health and became a member of the headspace Youth National Reference Group (hy NRG), which eventually saw me go through a ‘Being Herd’ workshop.
I felt more comfortable in sharing my story and that was a really strong starting point for me to open up to my parents a bit more, especially my Dad.
There is still sometimes a bit of tension with Mum and Dad when it comes to how my mental health affects my study, and it does sometimes manifest into anger and arguments, but I’m glad I made the decision to speak up and reach out for support.
May Lyn has since graduated with a distinction in arts and a double major in Japanese and Primary Education, and also has a Graduate Certificate in Applied Linguistics and TESOL.
She is currently studying a Masters of Secondary Teaching and has progressed to become a Youth Advisor for hY NRG 19/20.
If you’re interested in learning how to share your story, register your interest to attend a ‘Being Herd’ workshop.