Be You – Be Scene: Helping international students speak out through theatre

Mental health has traditionally been stigmatised and seen as taboo but recently there has been a shift, more people are moving towards understanding and promoting it as a normal occurrence. ABC News now has a dedicated mental health section for all stories with a focus on mental health. Organisations such as  ‘R U OK?’, Beyond Blue and many others work towards a primary goal of normalising mental illness and giving support to people who need help. Even the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why”, which was criticized for glamourising mental illness forced conversation about suicide rates amongst young adults.

The issue at hand is slowly being normalised and accepted.

Yet for many International students in Australia mental health still remains taboo. There is little emphasis on their mental health, even though statistics from last February show that there are over five hundred thousand of us here.

This was what Be You Be Scene tried focused on when they performed at Signal 3rd of April.

Every time they had a practice session, I followed and watched as international students from all backgrounds rehearsed in a medium sized rectangular room, covered in stage lights from the black floors to ceiling curtains.

Be You Be Scene, a program supported by StudyMelbourne has allowed international students to raise their voice in a safe space about their struggles to people who are unaware. They perform their stories through theatrical acts in universities, corporate settings, and forums, places where they can spread awareness. This time around, they performed their struggles with mental health at Flinders Walk in Melbourne.

I am also an International student and have had my fair share of struggles with my mental health, it was great finding out what similar struggles my fellow international friends also faced in their transition here in the land down under.

There were about 13 people practicing together, each with different individual stories. Catherine Simmonds, the director of Be You Be Scene weaved them into a coherent fluid single performance the way a conductor beautifully leads together an entire ensemble.

During the practice, the students were told to practice their impulse emotion. With a single clap by Catherine, they had to start laughing. With another clap, they changed into crying. These quick snaps represented how quickly we had to adjust our emotions, mirroring times during an international student’s journey such as when it was time to go to a class we were dreading or when we wanted to look strong adapting to a new environment.

The whole rehearsal centered around finding their own individual story. I saw raw unedited stories from each participant, and it was emotional to see the similar or highly contrasted difference between my personal struggles and those that they are still facing.

Ivan Wong, a Monash University student from Hong Kong, sometimes find it hard to get out of his bed, even to meet his friends. An issue that seems common and light, but inherently a sign of depression.  

Alfonso, an RMIT Student from Indonesia showed in his scene that he tried to hang out with his Australian friends but realised he doesn’t share the same values with them. “I don’t enjoy any of this [drinking, partying, sex]. I want to be a part of them, but I can’t be them,” he explained.

Their stories reminded me of how I felt coming to Australia. I felt a desire, an expectation, and weight. “In the movies everyone looks happy. They’re all having drinks and they’re all free and happy but when you get here…It’s not what you thought it would be,” Catherine Simmonds spoke to the room, connecting with the performers during practice.  

I went along to the actual performance and there was an audience of thirty to forty people whose eyes were all glued to the performers. While the performance went smoothly, I noticed how some of the performers had trembling hands. This is a testament to how vulnerable these brave souls were to perform their raw emotions on stage.

Silvia Gudiño, who is from Venezuela shared her pain about being powerless to help her family back home. “I have this guilt inside me…If I want to go to a doctor, I go to a doctor, because that’s what everyone should have but they don’t. And I’m here [Melbourne] and they’re not,” she said, shedding tears. Despite this, she still has a responsibility to finish her education here, as she recalled her mom said, “because if we were all in Venezuela we wouldn’t have a future.”

Maika Tran and Abigail Chan, Monash students from Vietnam and China respectively, shared many of international student’s parental pressure when they recanted what their parents constantly remind them. “You education, It’s your choice! But we’ve invested with you,” said Maika’s parents, followed with Abigail’s Father saying “You’ve got one year left so make it work!.”

Even with all the reasons to stress, many International students still find it hard to share their struggles with a professional.  Why? Research into their hesitation revealed the stigma in their culture that counselors and psychiatrists are only for the severely mentally ill. Another reason seemed to be privacy. Sharing your anxiety feels like airing your dirty laundry. Wendy Huang who’s studying in Monash told her mom about talking to a counselor but her response was “why would you go talk to a stranger?.”

The performance concluded with Wendy trying to call a counselor but wishing to speak to someone who can speak Mandarin. The rest of performers gather in front of her, posing asking “Do you have someone who speaks Portuguese?”

“Do you have someone who speaks Spanish?”

“Do you have someone who speaks Vietnamese?”

“Do you have someone who speaks Mandarin?”

“Do you have someone who speaks Cantonese?”

“Indonesian?”

And at the end, the performers answered with a resounding “No? Okay thank you.”

End scene.

The performance helped me understand my fellow international students, some that I have similar experiences with, some whose struggles were foreign to me. And there is a myriad of other reasons with their struggles with mental health that they might be reluctant to share. The performance is the first step however, in destigmatising and normalising mental health for international students. Be You – Be Scene hopes that they can inform Australians, while also encouraging fellow foreign friends to try to speak up and seek help.

Missed out on joining the Be You – Be Scene program this time around? No worries, they will be gearing up to start again sometime in August. Follow them on Facebook here to keep track and stay up to date!

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