International students need to Prioritise their mental health

In my first two weeks of University, I have barely eaten something. At the time, I thought my lack of appetite was just a ‘mood’ of my body. I used to cry a lot and I knew I was homesick, but homesickness felt like a normal thing to live. I used to get sad and irritable from even the smallest challenges like not understanding someone’s accent or not being able to properly weigh a cabbage on a self-check out machine in Tesco or getting confused at crossing the street. I didn’t realise that I was depressed because I have never been depressed or, rather, I have not been ‘depressed’ as defined by my culture.

It is really hard to admit to yourself that you have a mental health problem, especially if you come from an International cultural background. Mental health problems are stereotypically linked with very negative concepts: weakness, incapacity, inability, craziness, abnormality, witchcraft, curse, burden etc. The above map shows only a few restrictions that people with mental health problems face: not being able to carry out jury service or become a director of a company (UK until July 2013), inability to own a home (Lithuania), refusal of access to facilities — museums, fitness centres, swimming pools (Japan, Korea) and so on.

Because of this stigma in International communities, International students would rarely self-diagnose as having a mental health problem and would even more rarely seek counselling or help, even though they would acknowledge all the symptoms that trigger these problems and are relatively aware of available services.

It is essential, therefore, that Universities and Students’ Unions work together to actively fight against this stigma and help International students get the support they need, especially in the circumstances in which International students might face different stress factors such as: language challenges, culture shock and inability to fit in, long distance from family and friends, crisis situations happening back home and the feeling that they cannot do anything about it. In most of these cases, International students rarely seek help because their education is, at times, based on concepts of ‘resilience’, of ‘coping with whatever life throws at you’ , ‘not moaning and complaining about things’, ‘snapping out of bad moods’, ‘not being or appearing weak’ for fear of disappointing their families and friends.

In this context, raising awareness among our staff to spot the symptoms and refer these students to the adequate services is crucial. However, improving International students’ lives cannot be a treating-the-effect-solution. We need to attack the root cause, to tackle the contributing stress factors (including stigma) that stop our students from discussing their mental health and seeking help. And, in order to do this, we need our International students to speak up about how they feel here.

Our Welfare Officer, Anna Mullaney, has started a survey to get feedback from our students. This feedback is of great importance as it will shape the way we offer support in the future and it is absolutely essential that International students fill in this survey because it will define what we need to do to better support you or your friends. If you ever found yourself or a friend crying in front of your mirror, questioning why you even decided to come to study in the UK, feeling down because you cannot keep up with your studies, feeling distressed because your family has problems and you do not know what to do, feeling like you do not belong here then you should tell us BY COMPLETING THIS SURVEY so we can help others that might feel just like you. The survey is 100% CONFIDENTIAL and you also have a chance of winning 5x£100.