Wednesday, September 14, 2011

RU OK Day for the New Kids on the Block

Gemma from My Big Nutshell inspired me on Twitter to post about R U OK Day tomorrow. As I work in an intensive English school where many students are lost and alone I thought it might be a good idea to give another perspective. Even though I am no expert (after all, I'm just the secretary!), I do hear many heartwrenching stories from kids that come through the school.

[image from here]

Alot of those who miss out on mental health support are those new to the country. Not only refugees from war torn and suppressed countries, but those that have come here without family support or a community to help them. Their lack of English can isolate them and some overseas students can fall through the school support cracks and just be put under the ESL umbrella.

For example, I have seen a few students who have been attending a main stream school and when they fail to achieve the minimum standards and they are recognised as being "English as a Second Language" student, the first reaction of the school may be to enrol them at an intensive English school rather than investigate other learning difficulties because of the language barrier. Once at the centre and after specialised ESL assessments, it is then discovered there that the child actually may have other reasons that hinder their learning or may have symptoms of an autisc disorder or Aspergers. In other cases, the children that come from violent and traumatic situations (eg, Kenya refugee camps, war zones and even seeing their family members killed) need specialised counselling that is not always available in alot of schools. These are the children that fall through the mental health cracks.

Just today I heard of a couple of lost souls who needed someone to ask "R U OK?". One 17 yr old girl who had grown up in a Burmese refugee camp was doing an art project last week to represent 3 panels of her life before, now and the future. She explained to the teacher how happy she was now and that this was the first time she had ever used or even seen paint and brushes! She had never painted in her 17 years of life. She was an only child and her parents had no English and they knew no one from their country here. Many times she had been trying to organise their life in their new country (housing, jobs, even getting the phone connected was impossible - not to mention filling out the Census form!). She did a brilliant job on her project and the art teacher was moved with her story knowing that most of our Aussie kids would be splashing around in paint even before they could write! The girl's story got the class talking and another boy from Indonesia explained how when his family moved here he cried for three days. Then a Chinese student told him how lucky that boy was because he had his family around him. The Chinese boy was sent to Australia by his parents to stay in a boarding school and only had strangers around him 7 days a week, night and day and was bored all the time. No wonder these teenagers are addicted to the internet!

Three different students, all had different circumstances but they all needed emotional support after moving to the other side of the world, sometimes alone, sometimes trying to overcome horrific childhoods in refugee camps and escaping from war.

So many students arrive without parents who cannot leave their jobs but want their children to have a good education. So they place them with guardians who are sometimes unknown relations or paid professional guardians appointed by an agent. Unfortunately some of these guardians do not "guard" the child at all. One case I saw which tore me apart was a 12 year old girl in the care of appointed guardians who thought a balanced diet for a young girl was sending her to McDonalds everyday and continually sent her to school when she was very sick with the flu. We ended up taking her to the doctor ourselves and called her parents overseas to insist that she be put in a home where she would be cared for. Most of the time the parents are assured by the agent and the guardian that their child is being looked after and the guardians might frighten the poor kid into lying to her parents so as not to "worry them".

The most tragic story was from one of our old refugee students. He had come such a long way from nothing and had achieved a scholarship to university but unfortunately it was hundreds of miles from home and his large, supportive family. He fell in love with an Australian girl there and I'm guessing her family wasn't happy about their relationship. It seems like she was breaking up with him when this beautiful boy killed her and then himself. We were devastated. The years of overcoming poverty, displacement and achieving academically could not alter the fact he still had demons haunting him from his traumatic childhood and once his support was not around, he broke.


After talking to our school counsellor and one of the teachers today about R U OK? Day, they made me aware that although alot of teachers may be concerned for a student's mental health and want to ask them R U OK?, many of them aren't prepared if the answer is "No". As our counsellor pointed out, it's great to ask but it's even better to not panic and flee if they are not OK. Know that you can always listen to them if they just need to let it out and sometimes that might be enough to help. But if the problem they have really needs specialised help, ask them if they want you to find out where they can go to receive that help and then you can ask someone else that would know or do some research yourself. I know from personal experience that when you're in that black hole the thought of trying to find out how you can get out is sometimes just too hard.

Once again, I stress I'm nowhere near an expert, just an observer that realises some people can go missing in a crowd. So if you know of someone who has trouble communicating or is all alone in a strange place, ask them "R U OK?" It may make the world of difference to someone.


  1. Hi Becci,

    I'm glad i found your post on this. I hate reading stories like this because it just makes me feel bad. But on the other hand I need to read stories like this to validate these people'e lives and the incredible, crap basically, that they have to endure.

    People as passionate as you are scarce. And that's a real shame.

    Love & stuff
    Mrs M

  2. Thankyou Maria. Your moving post revealed that there are many out there who got lost and never came back. xx

  3. Your caring nature cries out from this post. Thank you.

  4. Teaching comes with many more expectations than just providing an education. Your story clearly demonstrates how teachers are at the coal face of personal and social issues, which requires so much more of them. They are doing such an important job.


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