MENTAL health is a persistent topic in Australia and is often described as an epidemic for young people. Anthea Batsakis speaks to beyondblue’s Dr Stephen Carbone to learn more about how international students can identify and find support for their feelings of anxiety and depression.
Having a mental health condition is not a weakness, isn’t shameful, and doesn’t mean you’re being “over-dramatic”, just as much as being sick with the flu doesn’t.
Three million Australians are living with anxiety or depression (or both), and one in four people aged between 16 and 24 have a mental health condition. It’s important that these conditions are understood and acknowledged, as the senseless stigma on mental health can prevent people from seeking the right support.
International students especially endure a lot of stress – living away from home, paying full fees, the pressures of study, and all in a foreign language can leave you feeling helpless, overwhelmed, and maybe even afraid at times. So when these feelings start to affect your daily life, it might be more than just stress.
Speaking to beyondblue’s policy, research, and evaluation leader Dr Stephen Carbone, we explain the difference between anxiety and depression, where to find support, and what signs students ought to look out for.
What is anxiety and depression?
It’s more than just feeling sad or stressed. Everyone has bad days, and feeling stressed and overwhelmed is not exactly unfamiliar to students.
Anxiety and depression occur when these negative feelings persist and are debilitating to our daily lives. They can occur separately or simultaneously, and within a wide emotional spectrum.
Persistent negative feelings can easily become normalised by consistency and endurance in day-to-day life. So what exactly is considered “normal”?
“Where everyday sadness blurs into depression can sometimes be a little arbitrary. But we know that depression is not just everyday sadness, it’s more significant, more intense, and creates more impact on daily life. The same with anxiety, it’s not just everyday stress” said Dr Carbone.
Anxiety is when stress and anxious feelings don’t subside, even after pressures or stressful situations have been removed.
People with anxiety “are often quite physically tense and restless”.
“They might have panic attacks where they’re breathing quickly, their pulse is going fast and they feel jumpy and shaky. There’s often this sense of something bad is going to happen and they want to avoid those situations,” said Dr Carbone.
There are several different types of anxiety, but general symptoms of anxiety, as explained by beyondblue, include:
- Feeling worried or anxious most of the time
- Finding it difficult to calm down
- Feeling overwhelmed and frightened by sudden feelings of intense panic/anxiety
- Experiencing recurring thoughts that cause anxiety, but may seem silly to others
- Avoiding situations or things which cause anxiety (like social events or study)
- Experiencing ongoing difficulties after traumatic events
Having too many pressures and stresses can trigger symptoms of anxiety, but early life experiences and a family history of mental health problems can also play an important role.
Fundamentally, anxiety is biological as the body responds to a misguided fight or flight function.
“If there’s something dangerous like a fire that we need to escape from, the body gets ready for action. For people with anxiety that biological system can be switched on even though there’s no actual real danger or threat,” said Dr Carbone.
Depression is the intense and persistent feeling of sadness, usually lasting two weeks or longer. Dr Carbone also states people with depression “can also lose interest, pleasure, or enjoyment in life and in the things they used to enjoy.”
“They look at their life and think things aren’t going well, or they look at their future and worry it’s all going to be quite negative.”
General signs and symptoms of depression include:
- Negative and self-critical thinking
- Low self-esteem and self-confidence
- Tired and run down all the time
- Loss or change of appetite, leading to significant weight loss/gain
- Withdrawing from close family and friends
- Not going out anymore
- Having trouble sleeping
Depression is a complex disease, and it’s often suggested to be due to chemical imbalances. But in reality, depression has a variety of causes and isn’t as simple as a chemical seesaw. Medication and medical problems, genetic and family history of mental health conditions, faulty mood regulation by the brain, and the stress and strain a person is under can all play a part in causing depression.
How to be mentally healthy
Having a connection with others through support or social networks is an important protective factor of mental health.
Dr Carbone explains that “with international students, they’re away from family, friends, and the usual supports. They can sometimes be a bit socially isolated, so joining clubs, associations, or groups and creating a local friendship support network as well as keeping up contact through social media with people back home is important”.
Maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise is known to help milder forms of depression, as well as getting adequate amounts of sleep. Most effectively, however, is regularly practicing meditation and other relaxation strategies – whether it involves yoga or mindfulness training.
Learn about the science of meditation and mindfulness and how they effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression over at Headspace’s official webpage.
Where to find support?
- Mainstream Services: Your GP is a good place to start if you’re unsure of where to go or who to see. They may be able to help entirely themselves, or can point you in the right direction by referring you to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other counsellor
- Student counselling services: These are conveniently located for international students as they’re near campus or on campus
- Online Programs: Headspace runs an online counselling service called eHeadspace. beyondblue also has a web chat service available from 3.00pm – 12.00am
- Support Helpline: beyondblue has a helpline service that you can call at any time.