How did you feel when you first arrived in Australia? Did you feel excited, free or independent? Or, distressed, lonely, pressured? International students often struggle with their mental health for many reasons. Do not fret, it is okay to not feel okay.
With rising stress and the development of an increasingly difficult education system, it is common for students to experience a decline in mental health. Especially international students, who struggle with the added pressure and culture shock of living in a new country completely different from their life back home.
To find out more, we spoke to Trinity College School counsellor Camilo Izquierdo to find out exactly how international students feel and engage with mental health and wellbeing.
The stigma against mental health
Many international students are afraid of admitting that they have a mental illness as the cultures they originate from may have negative attitudes and beliefs around mental health. One of the reasons that Mr Izquierdo mentioned is that in such societies, mental health literacy and mental health awareness are low. Lack of organisations, schools and government initiatives raising awareness about such issues are among the reasons why.
People are less likely to be ashamed of a medical condition if there is sufficient awareness by their peers. However, this is different for mental health conditions. The added problem of mental health issues being “invisible” can be challenging and those who have not experienced it may not be able to empathise.
In a new environment and a new culture, it is likely that international students would feel lost. Mr Izquierdo reports that international students are not as familiar with how the system works in Australia. They are unsure of where to go within the school or outside of it. This is further complicated by a student’s medical health insurance and even knowing the difference between a clinic and a hospital. But ultimately “the fear that others, friends or families will judge them negatively or will dislike them or disapprove,” he says, is the main reason making international students anxious.
But exactly which parts of students’ lives will be affected?
There were four areas of an international student’s life Mr Izquierdo identified as ‘at risk’ of being affected:
Their identity: The way they see themselves and the way they think others see them. They get confused and too caught up, ashamed to seek help in fear of being alienated.
Their studies: The biggest priority for an international student is, of course, their studies. Unhealthy mental conditions affect their ability to study, their ability to get to class, their ability to work with others and to work by themselves effectively.
Their social lives: Mental health issues may make it harder for international students to relate to others. This is especially important as there is already a huge cultural gap between local and international students. Additionally, they may feel anxiousness around people or even lack of motivation to socialise.
Their physical health: Unhealthy mental conditions may also result in international students turning to unnecessary drug use. This is a temporary band-aid that may snowball into bigger issues in the future. Additionally, students may find it hard to exercise regularly which impacts their overall health.
The importance of keeping your mental health up
An optimal state of mental health, as defined by Mr Izquierdo, “is when a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours do not make you feel miserable in any way.”
However, it is important to note that there is no 100 per cent positive mental health state and even the healthiest of minds may have rainy days of sadness. The key is to keep things in balance, prevent the negativity from consuming you.
Statistically, between international students and local students, the number of students struggling with mental illnesses are pretty similar. However, unlike local students, international students face a new, unfamiliar environment and are at a higher risk. For example, think about feeling lost and helpless in a new environment: the cultural shock, homesickness from being away from close friends and family – all this just builds up and accumulates, alongside the increasing pressure of school. This makes it a primary concern for international students.
Keeping your mental state healthy can make your life abroad better. If you feel way under the weather, don’t hesitate to schedule a visit! It wouldn’t hurt to talk to someone about how you feel.
Reasons for the decline of mental health in international students
General factors that contribute to the decline of an international student’s mental health include cultural shock, homesickness, loneliness and isolation. However, the worsening of mental health is commonly triggered by experiences of trauma: being physically, emotionally, sexually abused or experiencing a natural disaster, as well as domestic violence.
Apart from trauma, family mental health history can increase the likelihood of a child to experience mental illness, genetically.
Izquierdo mentioned that “what we see is what we learn”, and that we learn to deal with problems in a similar way to others. Substance use, like alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs, plays a big role in deteriorating a person’s mental health and health conditions generally.
Stress is a big factor; study-related stress is common to international students. When assignments and exams come around, these are times when stress and mental health symptoms are more likely to emerge. For example, at times of increased stress for someone who has experienced depression, it is more likely that these depressive symptoms will increase. International students experience this as they impose on themselves a lot of pressure, and their families also put pressure on them to get good results.
There are many reasons an international student would not feel comfortable seeking help from a counsellor. Cultural and language differences can make the experience seem daunting and scary for most.
While we do recommend seeking help from a professional, here are some tips from Mr Izquierdo for those who just are not ready:
Maintain your physical health because a healthy body means a healthy mind. Even taking daily walks around your neighbourhood or campus can be a way to destress! Eat your meals in a timely manner and of course, make sure your meals are nutritious.
Sleep is incredibly important for a person’s mental and physical development. Get a full 8 hours of sleep a day to ensure that your body is not working overtime to keep you healthy.
You need an outlet for everything and it is no different for mental health. Talk to people you trust, even if its just a friend or a classmate. Sometimes sharing with someone else may just be the best medicine. If you prefer to talk to a stranger, several helpline options will be listed down below for you.
This story was produced by Media and Communication students at Trinity College Foundation Studies as part of Meld’s community newsroom collaboration. Education institutions, student clubs/societies and community groups interested in being involved can get in touch with us via firstname.lastname@example.org.