Depression is something we often hear about among third culture kids. If you’re from a cross cultural background, you’ll probably already be familiar with the standard narrative: Moving around and being embedded in foreign bubbles lead to a cultural disconnect with the local society. Living in communities that are inherently transient means it’s hard to hold down long-term friendships. More importantly for those of us from Asia, the need to suppress the negative emotions of the individual for the communal good might stifle the conversation about depression.
So I found it refreshing to talk to Ellen Mahoney, founder of Sea Change Mentoring, which provides guidance to TCKs by pairing up high school kids with adults who grew up just like they did. Ellen believes that through mentoring, depression doesn’t have to dominate our story.
Even though Ellen is American, I feel like she completely gets my Asian TCK-ness. I guess it’s no surprise, because Ellen spent a big chunk of her childhood in Asia, in Tokyo up to the sixth grade at the International School of the Sacred Heart, and Singapore for junior and senior at Singapore American School, with a few years in Connecticut in between.
After graduating from university, Ellen joined iMentor – which supports students from low-income communities through mentoring – before founding Sea Change Mentoring in 2012.
I spoke to Ellen about depression and TCKs, particularly in Asia. As someone who has herself battled depression, she was able to provide a unique perspective.
Ellen: There is no real good data about this. Among third culture kids, you hear a lot about depression and anxiety. Adolescence is not the most common age group for depression in general, but it is still normal to see teenagers who are TCKs develop depression.
What are things that can lead to depression? Could it be family history? Could it be the culture where that particular expat community is located? For example, in Singapore, you have a lot of people in finance. High-achieving parents may put a lot of pressure on their kids, which can exacerbate existing depression if they don’t have the proper coping skills.
Another question is this: Is this related to affluence, or TCKness? I wasn’t trained in Asia, but in the U.S., with affluent children, there is more drug use, depression and anxiety. We need to ask, when a TCK is depressed, is it related to TCKness, or some other characteristics?
As for my personal story, I also experienced depression, and one of my friends committed suicide.
One reason why people commit suicide is because of feeling of not belonging. That is the primary reason. To put it more precisely, if you feel like you don’t belong, it doesn’t mean you will commit suicide, but if you commit suicide, it means you likely felt like you didn’t belong.
Among affluent communities, it is common to find depression. Depression can be hereditary. Maybe it has to do with the pressure to maintain the standards that your parents have set in terms of class and status. I think there could also be pressure to keep up with the Joneses and always have a public face. Really what depression is, is when we have a feeling and internalize it. Sometimes in affluent and also expat comunites, you can’t show that you are upset or angry. What will the other diplomats say? What will the company say? You might get kicked out of the country.
In most Asian cultures, it not okay to talk about mental illeness. Culturally, it is not appropriate to get that out and it’s looked down upon. I wonder whether that might have something to do with a sense of “I don’t belong”.
CXC: When does depression usually appear among TCKs?
Ellen: You definitely see these cases in teens, adolenscents aged 16 to 23. What I’ve noticed is that it becomes more pronounced within the first two or three years of leaving the international community. It’s that adjustment period. Any time someone goes through adjustment, there’s loss involved. If you’re not near your support system – your family, siblings, the international community – and you’re on your own, that’s really hard. If you’re not being mirrored, you feel disconnected, and can be at risk of being depressed.
As for Asia, this value of keeping things inside, not making a scene, being part of the group and not making yourself stand out – I wonder if that encourages people to internalize their feelings. If you are taught to keep it inside does it lead to more depression? It’s a question that I would want to ask.
I think it also depends on where they go to university. I think racism can be a problem. In the U.S., you’ll see that a bit. In Australia, that’s another serious challenge.
There is also the question of reverse culture shock. Take Japan, for example. Because Japan is so homogenous, and there is such a great respect for Japanese things and traditions, it’s really hard for kids to come back and integrate, and especially hard to find a job. The are a lot of kids returning who feel really alientated. The Japanese government is now trying to do something about it. They have recognized the need to welcome these Japanese back into Japan.
One of my friends who works for the City University of New York talks about families who are Hong Kong Chinese and have lived overseas, who are having a really hard time being accepted by their Hong Kong peers.
CXC: You started Sea Change Mentoring in 2012. What is the idea behind it and how do you help TCKs?
Ellen: In education and psychology, there is a theory of positive youth development, and that is an idea that I subscribe to. It is the idea that even children have tools to be resilient, which is in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s, when there was much more of an emphasis on risk-oriented theory. I think it’s dangerous to think this way. It eliminates hope for kids. It leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The story of a TCK is hard. I personally had depression for seven years. I think if we keep telling that story, we are only going to feed these illneses, adjustment problems and relationship issues.
Why I chose mentioring and to work with kids is because there is a ton of research that shows that mentoring can promote mental positivity in kids. I want a tool to work with TCKs, to tell them you’re resilient, adapatable and open-minded. Let’s focus on that first and see how you can apply those assets. I prefer to work with kids when they’re still in their international communities. So when you tansition into a different place and into adulthood, you can say: I already know what assets I have and what tricks to pull out of my bag.
One of the coolest things to come out of research is that mentoring actually decreases the symptions of depression – just the ability for a TCK to have a relationship with a mentor who understands them, because they grew up the same way. No matter where they move, their mentor is with them. Just having that mentor is a protective layer against depression.
It sounds cheesy, but we’re all human beings and we all just want to be loved and cared for, and to be seen and acknowledged. When you’re depressed, you feel you are not seen. Mentors are there for you. They say: We see you. You can be a total jerk to me, and I’ll still be there next week, the following week, and after that. That is a very powerful thing.
One of the themes we work with is relationship issues. Because a lot of us did not get as much practice in dealing with conflict and having a constant group of friends from the ages of five to 18, a lot of us don’t know what that means. Relationships are very important for a sense of love and belonging. Mentoring is reparative. Maybe you didn’t have that practice. The mentor helps you undo some of those bad practices.
Find out more about Sea Change Mentoring and Ellen here.