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Lockdowns and border closures have led to a specific kind of grief and yearning - homesickness. While homesickness isn’t an official medical condition it was once, with soldiers fighting on foreign soil regularly diagnosed after suffering debilitating symptoms.

How to cure homesickness



The pandemic has kept many people separated from their homes and their loved ones for over 18 months. 

Lockdowns and border closures have led to a specific kind of grief and yearning - homesickness.

Homesickness isn’t an official medical condition but it was once, with soldiers fighting on foreign soil regularly diagnosed after suffering debilitating symptoms.

Today, GP and health columnist for The Saturday Paper Dr Melanie Cheng on the origins of homesickness and whether there’s a cure.

Guest: Health columnist for The Saturday Paper, Dr Melanie Cheng

Show Transcript

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

[THEME MUSIC STARTS]

 

The pandemic has kept many people separated from their homes and their loved ones for over 18 months 

 

Lockdowns and border closures have led to a specific kind of grief and yearning - homesickness.

 

Homesickness isn’t an official medical condition but it was once, with soldiers fighting on foreign soil regularly diagnosed after suffering debilitating symptoms.

 

Today, GP and health columnist for The Saturday Paper Dr Melanie Cheng on the origins of homesickness, and whether there’s a cure.

 

It’s Monday September 13.

 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

 

RUBY:

Mel, could you start by telling me a bit about where it is that you're from and what it's like for you to be separated from your home at the moment? 

 

MELANIE:

Yeah, sure. Well, I moved to Australia from Hong Kong to study at university, and that's now more than 20 years ago. So the last time I was actually back in Hong Kong for a visit was about seven years ago, soon after my son was born. 

 

And I guess even though I've created a home and a family and a community for myself here in Melbourne, I still have these moments of homesickness. So, you know, little things can trigger it. A song on the radio, for instance, or the screensaver, for instance, on my Apple TV cityscape of Hong Kong. And sometimes just seeing that can make me a little teary. 

 

It's the smells as well. Smell of cooked rice, which reminds me of my grandmother's house in Hong Kong. And so I was feeling a lot of these things. I guess it was magnified by the pandemic and not knowing when I would next be able to go back. And at the same time, I was seeing a lot of homesickness in the patients I was seeing at work. 

 

And it really got me wondering about homesickness. I never really thought about it in a lot of detail before in terms of the word itself, sickness and what it was exactly and why it was called a sickness in the first place. 

 

RUBY:

Hmm. Can you tell me a bit about what you discovered? Because I think when I think about homesickness, I don't really think about a medical diagnosis. So is it something that can be diagnosed? 

 

MELANIE:

It's not currently considered a diagnosis or a disease at the moment. But what was so interesting about when I started reading about it was that it did actually used to be considered a medical illness and quite a serious one, in fact. 

 

So the origins of homesickness go back quite, quite a long way. It was actually a medical student by the name of Johannes Hofer in Switzerland in the 17th century who first used this term nostalgia, which was a term he created from the Greek words nostos, which means homecoming and Algas, which means pain. 

 

And he used that term to describe a medical condition he was observing in people, particularly students and mercenaries who were far away from home. And he described that this condition was characterised by symptoms such as nervousness, poor sleep, reduced appetite and even heart palpitations. And what he found most interesting was that these patients' symptoms actually resolved almost completely on these patients returning home.

 

And it was a condition that was widely recognised and treated even as late as World War Two, when it was still actually included in the surgeon general's manual, which lists, you know, medical conditions.

 

And there are even reports of some soldiers dying from homesickness. Certainly, I read some stories about soldiers refusing to eat as a result of homesickness and kind of moaning. You know, I want to go home. I want to go home as they actually succumbed to home sickness. So it was quite a serious condition considered at the time. 

 

RUBY:

Right. And so to what extent is homesickness seen as a medical condition now? Because those kind of symptoms that you're describing, things like poor sleep and reduced appetite and heart palpitations, they’re quite serious. So are they still seen as things that can result from a person being homesick? 

 

MELANIE:

Well, I think it's important not to pathologise homesickness now. It's not considered a disease currently. And in fact, it is normal. I would argue that it's part of being human to feel homesick. And in fact, homesickness means that you have a loving attachment to a place and to people and to a community. So it could even be seen as a potentially positive thing. 

 

But, of course, in some cases, when there's an overwhelming preoccupation with home that is preventing someone from being able to form new connections in a new place, then that can be problematic and can actually lead to psychological conditions like anxiety and depression. 

 

But what I've observed during the pandemic is that people are feeling homesick in a more intense way and they're feeling it more frequently than perhaps they would otherwise. And and that's because of the border closures, you know, both international and domestic, which mean that people can't easily return home and they don't know when they might be able to. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified patient:

“I have all my family based either in India or other parts of the world…”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified patient:

“So it's been more than 18 months since I’ve seen them and there's been some pretty traumatic things in the time that I’ve been away from them..”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified patient:

“I haven’t seen my daughter for nearly 18 months now, I miss her greatly and she’s pregnant with her first baby…”

 

MELANIE:

Many of these people separated from their homes and experiencing homesickness. And I've seen quite a few of them in my practise. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified patient:

“I feel homesick when I think about the memories of what home feels like smells likes, tastes like become more distant...”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified patient:

“At this point everything makes me homesick, but especially eucalyptus, cause we have a lot of that in California too…”

 

MELANIE:

Sisters separated from brothers, parents separated from their children, partners separated from each other. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified patient:

“Nothing will replace seeing her in the flesh and giving her a big hug.”

 

MELANIE:

And for many of them, it's coming up to almost two years of being separated. 

 

And that's two years of birthdays and anniversaries, That's two years that they won't get back. And what I've noticed is that people are really grieving for that time that they've lost. 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified patient:

“there's a lot of moments I’m missing. There's only so much time remaining and I'm missing out on so much of it, I feel really paralysed with sadness when I think about it too much..”

 

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

 

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RUBY:

Melanie, we're talking about how the impacts of homesickness have become magnified through the course of the pandemic. You're a GP and you've been seeing some of this in some of your own patients. Can you tell me any more about what they're saying to you about the experience of being homesick? 

 

MELANIE:

So even before the pandemic, I remember when I was working in community health in Melbourne, I would see a lot of older Greek and Maltese patients who migrated to Melbourne in the 1960s. And what really struck me about those patients was when they talked about their home countries, you know, their eyes would light up. It seemed like they were almost rather than being in my consulting room, they were back home. They were seeing their childhood stomping grounds around them. And, I guess I realised that homesickness was this thing that stayed with a person for a very long time, that this homesickness feeling is a long, long journey. It's a long process. And perhaps it never entirely goes away. 

 

With some of my younger patients that I'm seeing in my new practise. The difference, I think, is that when a lot of them left their home countries to come to Australia, they almost took for granted that they would be able to always return home. And and so I think all of us are kind of processing the fact that we're not able to do that anymore. And that's where this feeling of grief really is coming into play. 

 

So one case I think of particularly is the case of a student who was Australian and wanted to go back to the Middle East to see her father, who was about to undergo quite serious life saving surgery. And so she came to me asking me for a support letter, and I gladly wrote one for her to get a travel travel exemption. But her application was rejected two times. And each time it was just this really devastating psychological blow for her. And I could see her mental health just take this serious backward step every time she was rejected. And, you know, there was this real feeling of helplessness, both on her part and in my on my part to be able to help her with that. Fortunately, finally, she did on the third go get an exemption. And so, you know, I haven't heard from her since, but I do like to imagine that she is now reunited with her family in the Middle East. 

 

RUBY:

And I know that it's no longer considered a disease. But how do you manage a patient who is home sick? What can be done to kind of limit those feelings? Is there any sort of treatment or cure or is it really just a matter of waiting until you can go home? 

 

MELANIE:

So the literature suggests that at the core of homesickness is this yearning for familiarity and connection. 

 

So I think staying connected to loved ones who are overseas is, of course, really important. And thankfully, technology enables us to do that in ways that were previously not possible. 

 

But psychologists also recommend reaching out in your new home and establishing kind of new bonds, a new community, which, of course, is really difficult when you've got quite severe covid restrictions in place. But there are some small things that you can do, relatively simple things to kind of establish some familiarity and in what may be an unfamiliar place. So routine is important, going to the same cafe or restaurant for takeaway every day, for instance, or doing a shopping in the same street or exercising in the same park, because with time, you know, hopefully you might get to know some of the people that work in these places or frequent these places. 

 

And, you know, the barista might start to recognise you or your coffee order, for instance. And I know it might sound really trite, but what we do know, in fact, from studies is that these so-called weak ties to a person's local community are actually really important and really protective against things like loneliness. 

 

RUBY:

Mm hmm. And Mel, there's a lot of conversations happening right now about when international borders might open, how vaccine passports might operate home, quarantining all of these things. Are you and do you think your patients are feeling optimistic that you might be able to go home soon? 

 

MELANIE:

I mean, I personally take great encouragement from the vaccine uptake and the enthusiasm about vaccines amongst most of my patients, and we all obviously want this to be done in a safe way. And I think we're all watching other countries very closely at the moment. What's clear from other countries is that the path is not smooth or straightforward and it's going to be rocky. But at least vaccines do provide a path. 

 

So when I'm feeling frustrated personally, I like to remind myself that, you know, every hour of every day, thousands of Australians are getting vaccinated.

 

 And with each of those vaccines, we're getting that little bit closer to visiting our home countries and being reunited with our loved ones again. 

 

RUBY:

Well, I hope that you can see them soon. I really do. 

 

MELANIE:

Thank you so much. 

 

RUBY:

Thanks, Mel. And thanks for your time. 

 

MELANIE:

No worries. My pleasure. 

 

RUBY:

Thanks to everyone who sent through voice memos sharing their own experiences of homesickness, I hope you get to return home soon. 

 

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RUBY:

Also in the news today…

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant fronted their last daily briefing on Sunday, as the state recorded 1,262 new cases and 7 deaths.

From today the government will switch to video updates and less regular briefings. Berejiklian said the daily updates were not sustainable and further information would be provided “on a needs basis”.

 

Meanwhile Victoria recorded 392 cases on Sunday with health experts warning the outbreak in the state was accelerating faster than it is in NSW. 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am

Guest

Melanie Cheng is a doctor, writer and The Saturday Paper’s health columnist.