When the coronavirus pandemic began and quickly spread across regions of the world, our country’s leaders determined it best to firmly close our Australian borders to prevent the escalation of the virus and to keep us safe. This firm border policy has earned us the nickname “Fortress Australia”.
The difficulty we face, is that 1.5 years into the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people have been and are still impacted by this policy, causing great distress to those either stuck inside or those kept helplessly outside of the “fortress” Australia.
On the news channels, we have heard their voices and seen their frustration as these Australians stranded around the globe just cannot get home to be with loved ones. Many have lost patience with the policy and given up trying to return as the process has been too distressing.
As a therapist working with both individuals and couples, I am seeing many of the impacts in my consulting room for those unable to travel to their native countries. For people who have settled in Australia from overseas, they live permanently with a tear in their heart, as they miss their home country and loved ones, despite their love of living in Australia. Their inability to travel currently massively increases the size of their tear. Many of them are frustrated and distressed at not being able to visit their home country and feel completely trapped by this policy.
The most devastating experience for them is when a family member or loved one overseas is dying and they are unable to be by their side to pay their respects. Then there is the funeral. With no friends or family from home to support them, just themselves and maybe their partner watching a service on a screen, often in the late hours of the night. It is just soul-destroying for them having to farewell a loved one via Facetime.
I see a young couple in my consulting room, where the wife is Italian and the husband Australian. She was unable to return to Italy when her mother was dying. She felt cut-off and disconnected from those who were grieving in her home country together. Her mental health declined rapidly as she became depressed and started to withdraw into herself. For those in her position, they live with a deep sense of loneliness and despair, a longing for home, and a sense of helplessness about their situation.
Many people seeking permission to leave Fortress Australia have been denied it, whilst others manage to get out on compassionate grounds. The next option for people who have been denied permission to leave on compassionate grounds is to apply to leave the country for 3 months. 3 months! How is this even a viable option? How many of us can really walk out of our day-to-day lives for three months? How do we leave our family here in Australia? What about our partner? What happens to our relationship? How do we leave our children for three months? What happens to our work or studies? I am yet to meet anyone who is able to take this option up.
For people struggling with this, I have three tips –
Never give up – Keep applying to home affairs to have your request heard. Do not accept the decision is final. If you give up your mental health will likely decline as you will feel helpless and hopeless, and this will increase your chance of developing depression.
Get properly supported – If your mental health, especially depression or anxiety symptoms, have worsened you can find a therapist to help process this with you. You can also find or create an online support group of people in a similar situation. You may find that some live locally enough for you to meet up.
Help your partner truly get it – If you are in a couple relationship, help your partner understand the situation from your side. They need to understand a few things. These include, that they cannot make this better for you. That this is always there for you, beneath the surface, and this can impact your mood from time to time. Finally, that the difference between your two situations is tricky to manage sometimes, for example, when a family comes over it can bring up your own situation of being trapped without a way to get home. If this is difficult to do together, then find a couples therapist to help you communicate this in a way your partner can really understand.