The Importance of Addressing International Students’ Mental Health

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On September 17th, 2020,  21-year-old international student Amarinder Singh took his life while studying in Surrey BC, Canada due to a decline in his mental health, partly caused by financial stress. Hundreds of students deal with mental health struggles throughout their educational endeavors. Unlike others, international students struggle with more than just adjusting to a new country; they have the added stress of grappling with mental health issues in a foreign place. There are many factors that affect an international student’s mental health: family dynamics, the accessibility to mental health services, and the social stigma surrounding mental health stand out. 

Financial issues play a big role in an international student’s mental health during their time overseas. For instance, to attend the University of California, Davis, the average annual in state tuition is roughly $14,495 and the average annual out of state tuition is around $44,000. For international students the annual cost of attendance is around $56,000, along with the usual expenses such as food, housing, and frequent traveling. According to a study conducted by STILT, a fintech company focused on providing credit to immigrants and the underserved, 67% of international students feel stress related to the cost of attendance and 75% of international students feel stress related to the cost of travel. Studies have shown that students that are stressed about expenses are more likely to develop anxiety which interrupts their ability to learn and receive good marks.

Hundreds of students deal with mental health struggles throughout their educational endeavors. International students struggle with more than just adjusting to a new country; they have the added stress of grappling with mental health issues in a foreign place. There are many factors that affect an international student’s mental health: some of the top components can include family dynamics, the accessibility to mental health services, and the social stigma surrounding mental health. 

According to Dr. Nirmal Brar, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist based in Fresno, California, there are multiple factors that affect an international student’s mental health. “One factor is that they are away from their family, away from their support system. Another is that there is a cultural difference,”  Dr. Brar said. “Depending on which country they are from, there is a social stigma around mental health, much more in developing countries.” While we are constantly trying to destigmatize mental health issues across all countries, being away from family and not having that consistency can be tough, especially if one heavily relies on their parents, grandparents, or siblings for support. “Things were pretty exciting in the beginning, everything’s new and interesting, so I didn’t think about my family much,” said Weijia Chen, a fourth-year international student studying computer science at UC Davis. “But after a couple of years, I started to feel tired to keep the social life and started to feel lonely.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, starting in early 2020, has exacerbated the challenges that come with earning a college degree in a foreign country. Early on, many college campuses allowed students to choose between staying in the dorms or going home. However, due to the nature of online classes, international students were still at risk. Many campuses, such as Harvard, decided that regardless of the campus being open to its students, international students would be prohibited from studying in the United States. Depending on the campus, many international students had to decide between going home or working out alternative ways to maintain their nonimmigrant status in order to continue their studies within the United States. “My biggest problem was trying to leave the U.S. and worrying about whether or not the U.S. would allow international students back in,” said Mohamed Aljishi, an international student studying computer science at UC Davis. “Thankfully, the U.S. didn’t force international students out; however, my country banned all travel the day I booked my ticket home.” 

While facing the new “normal” in regards to their education, international students were far more susceptible to feeling homesick and lonely. “This pandemic made things worse. The feeling of being alone increased every day. Most of my friends had left Davis; all my relatives and family members were back in China,” said Chen. “I was a little bit depressed for a period of time but got better after talking to the school counselor.” 

Like Amarinder Singh, there are countless international students struggling and in need of help. Many students struggle with financial problems, being away from their families, and most recently, adjusting to the online nature of classes. Throughout these past few months, many international students have learned to adapt to the new “normal”. Many have created a more physically present support system through their friends, families, and communities. Others have begun using new online tools such as Zoom to stay connected with friends all around the world, and those who chose to stay in the states for their studies took to  cooking more cultural dishes in attempts to remain connected to their home countries. During these difficult times, international students are trying  to appreciate each moment as they get through their adversities.

If you are struggling with mental help, don’t be afraid to reach out. Here are some places you can seek help.

  1. School counselors
  2. Therapists
  3. Psychologists and psychiatrists
  4. Here is a site with more information about seeking help: https://www.mhanational.org/finding-help-when-get-it-and-where-go