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How to look after your mental health as an international student

Life as an international student can be an exciting and rewarding adventure. You’ll meet new people, experience a different way of life and learn in a new way. However, adapting to a new country, with a different climate, culture, and language can be overwhelming.

There are many reasons why you might struggle with your mental health as an international student. Dealing with the potential culture shock of starting life in a new country, and moving away from your family, friends and familiar support networks can make you feel isolated.

Unfortunately, studies have also shown that international students may be more reluctant to seek mental health help than domestic students. They are also less aware of the support that is available at most universities, so it’s important to understand that help is at hand if you need it.

Why is student mental health so important?

Mental health is an important issue for all students, not just those studying overseas. A recent UK study has found that 41% of students think they have poor mental health, 69% of which saying this has gone on for more than two years. Even more worrying is that 39% have felt suicidal.

The same study highlighted that only half of students would know where to go on campus to get help or advice. This shows that, despite the hard work of universities, students need more support and guidance when it comes to getting the help and support they need.

Poor mental health can arise at any time of life, but research shows that university students are particularly at risk. There are several factors that can make students more susceptible to mental illness, including:

  • Financial strain - Many students find it hard to cover their tuition fees and living costs while at university. The pressure of juggling work and studies, or getting into debt, can affect your mental health.
  • Age - Students are typically at the age when they are most at risk of developing a mental health condition. Around three-quarters of adults with a mental illness have their first episode before turning 25.
  • Pressure to succeed - Lots of students feel under pressure to do well at their studies, and the fear of failure, or letting down family members can cause a lot of stress, which can lead to poor mental health.
  • Lack of support - Moving to university, especially for international students, can mean you’re away from your family and friends. Not having your usual support network can make you feel lonely and more at risk of developing a mental health condition.

However, there are any number of reasons you might be struggling. Just because you can’t think of an obvious reason why you might be suffering, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek help and support.

What are the signs to look out for?

It’s important to remember that mental health is very personal, and everyone can display completely different symptoms. Spotting the signs can be tricky, especially at university when you’re experiencing a lot of change, but here are some things to look out for:

  • Lacking energy or motivation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Lack of hunger
  • Eating more than normal
  • Unusual mood swings
  • Excessive use of alcohol or drugs

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and just because you don’t have certain symptoms doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek help if you’re struggling.

If you notice any of these signs in a friend, speak to them and see if they need help. Encourage them to use the mental health support services available at your university. Offering to go along with them to any appointments for support can help alleviate any anxiety they may have.

What university support is available?

The mental health services offered can differ considerably from university to university, and from country to country. Some institutions may not have any services at all, so it’s important to look at what’s available when you’re applying to universities.

This is especially important if you already use mental health services at home. In this case, make sure those same services are available at the university and country you move to, so you can be confident your needs will be met.

However, many universities provide a wide range of services designed to help and support students. These can include:

  • Counseling services - Many universities have trained counselors on campus who you can speak to about any problems you’re having.
  • Mental health workshops - On some campuses, you get the opportunity to take part in workshops and specialized courses designed to help you work on your mental health.
  • Student mentors - If you are an international student, having a sympathetic mentor who you can talk to can really help. Not only are they someone to talk to, but they can also help you find the help you need.

Some universities have other great mental health initiatives, and it’s well worth looking into what your university offers. Even if they don’t have dedicated, trained mental health counselors, most universities have health and wellbeing services that can help. All services like this will be totally confidential.

If you’re studying overseas, you can contact your university’s international student services. Some services will have their own mental health services that specialize in helping international students, but if they don’t they’ll be able to help you get the support you need.

Resources outside of university

The support offered away from your university will vary depending on the country you’re studying in. Countries like the US and UK will have a wide range of services and charities that can help you, however, the quality and range of help might be different in other countries.

In fact, figures from the World Health Organization suggest that more than 40% of countries have no mental health policy and over 30% have no mental health program at all.

It’s also worth mentioning that you can usually reach out to charities in your home country, even when you’re studying abroad. Here are some of the services available around the world:

Student Minds

Student Minds is a UK student mental health charity that aims to educate students to have the skills and confidence to look after their mental health and support others.

They run workshops, and train students and university staff across the UK to deliver peer support programs led by students, for students.

Nightline

Nightline is a listening service run by students for students. The service is available at night and is mainly a UK-based initiative, but other countries including Canada and Germany have begun to adopt the service.

Student volunteers are trained to answer calls, emails, and messages from other university students, and talk to them about any issues or worries they have. One of the reasons Nightline works is that students are better able to empathize with the problems their peers are facing, which can make them easier to talk to.

Active Minds

Active Minds is a US-based organization that is dedicated to advocating for mental health awareness and support for students. They have more than 500 campus chapters across the US, where student volunteers encourage their peers to reach out for help.

They have several other initiatives, including ‘Send Silence Packing’, which aims to raise mental health awareness. This traveling exhibit visits 30 to 40 schools and communities a year and encourages people to seek out resources for themselves.

International helplines

The Together We Are Strong blog has a list of international helplines for countries all over the world you can call if you need someone to talk to.

Mental health self-care

There are a number of things you can do yourself that can have a positive impact on your mental wellbeing. Student Minds suggest creating a Wellbeing Toolkit and offer a number of ideas from students that could make you feel better, including:

  • Having a good sleep routine
  • Improve your environment; take time outside or declutter your personal space
  • Do something you enjoy like a sport or volunteering
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Staying active
  • Spend time with friends, or take time out to be alone if you need it

What to do if you’re struggling

For many international students, mental health is not something easily talked about. In certain cultures, there is still a lot of stigma attached to having a mental health condition, so it can be especially hard to admit or even recognize you have a problem.

If you think you may be struggling with your mental health, it’s really important you speak to someone at your university. If you’re not comfortable speaking to someone directly, think about sending an email, or speaking to a friend first about how you’re feeling.

Life at university can be hectic, but it’s important you try to take time out to think about your mental health. If you think something’s not right, or you find yourself struggling, don’t be afraid to speak up and find help.

The content of this international student mental health guide is provided for general information only. It isn't intended to replace a professional's specific advice. Please obtain the relevant professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action based on the information in this guide.