Counsellor talks mental health support for international students

mental health speak out
Loneliness can feel worse when you're thousands of miles from home. Source: Shutterstock

University can be stressful, and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t come across a moment or two of hardship during your time studying.

For international students, these problems can feel amplified when you’re so far away from home.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week so we spoke with Counselling Directory member Amanda Perl. As well as being a psychotherapist and counsellor, Perl is also a CBT practitioner and leads stage 4 diploma courses at the UK’s LIFE-FORCE Centre for Natural Well-being.

Perl works with a number of students every year, “through an extremely mentally and emotionally demanding practitioner diploma [the academic equivalent to a foundation degree]” as well as supporting students with mental illnesses.

She explained that although domestic students living away from home for the first time can “face similar stress to international students in terms of homesickness, learning how to self-care” and managing worries over their futures, “international students can feel more isolated, lonely and insecure as they struggle to survive emotionally due to the cultural [overload].”

You’re not alone. Source: Giphy

Perl told Study International there is an endless list of complex reasons why international students can struggle when first settling into university in a whole new country.

Many find adjusting to their new life taxing “when they do not hear their own language spoken, living conditions are different, [and there is] unfamiliar geography.”

Cultural differences can also be a stumbling block for students settling in, “not only in terms of, say, a background which is more family-centric, they can struggle with understanding new social norms and cultural tools that can help them feel as if they fit in.”

When students find themselves without their familiar cultural traditions such as a “shared history, beliefs, practices, and values” they can feel isolated.

The culture shocks are extended in “the way we dress, rituals such as celebrations, funerals and the practice of politics.

It might not be exactly the same but you may be able to find home cultural celebrations in your university country. Source: Giphy

“For international students, stress increases if their deeper culture is vastly different, such as attitudes towards gender, what is acceptable in terms of communication between the sexes, the way emotions are expressed and whether or not individual or collective achievement is at stake.”

Equally, students from “some cultures where ‘closed family’ practices are the norm, i.e., taking what is private within a person or family into what is seen as the public sphere is not acceptable” can find opening up especially difficult.

A particular struggle here can be “whether or not their success or failure creates extra stress through fear of bringing shame on the family” which often manifests itself in “feeling overwhelmed by pressure to study and achieve at a high level.”

The good news is that more and more universities are beginning to recognise when students may need help.

You’re not alone. Source: Giphy

“Since the HEPI Report published in 2016 highlighted how mental health disorders are higher amongst our student population who struggle with depression and loneliness at the rate of one in three, and an increase in the number of student suicides, awareness has begun to develop around the need to provide counselling services,” Perl explained.

An increasing number of institutions are offering “information about how a student may feel once they begin their new life at university”, plus on-site counselling services and mentoring schemes. Students are also being “actively encouraged to join groups and societies” to help them form friendships and have the opportunity to find like-minded individuals.

So, where can students go for help?

Available services vary from country to country, city to city and institution to institution but generally speaking students can access individual or group counselling through a registered GP.

Many universities offer “signposting to a low-cost counselling service that offers reduced rates to students,” Perl explained.

In the UK Perl claimed many universities have their own counselling services. But it’s not just the UK, institutions in most countries all over the world offer similar services.

For example, “Essex University and University College London offer students group therapy, mindfulness groups and mental health workshops in addition to one to one counselling,” she said.

And “some universities offer a mentoring service where new students are matched with those who have experienced similar challenges.”

There are even events and services specifically tailored toward international students.

“There is now an ‘International Week’ [in the UK], dedicated to overseas students,” Perl said.

It “hosts a wide variety of events that students can access including activities and academic discussions aligned with the #WeAreInternational campaign.”

For students from ‘closed family’ cultures, many universities offer a “befriending service” where students can meet others who have experienced the same struggles with opening up when they moved away to university.

The service “provides role models and almost brings permission for students to be able to speak up and ask for help when feeling low,” Perl told Study International.

Alternatively, if students wish to stay away from in-person counselling Perl recommends Expert Self Care (ESC) Student, a free app “available specifically for helping students manage their mental well-being.”

Accept yourself

Perl says the key to emotional well-being is simply accepting yourself as you are.

“Self-acceptance is the key to enjoying mental health and well-being that affords healthy relationships with others,” she told Study International.

“Students are at an age when they are particularly vulnerable as their identities are just being formed and they are becoming independent from their families.

Be yourself – you really are awesome! Source: Giphy

“International students have the additional pressure of needing to learn a whole new set of cultural rules that strikes at the heart of everything that they previously knew to be true before they can achieve a secure sense of self.”

Being versatile, unafraid of asking for help, and accepting that sometimes the best things take a little bit of getting used to – change can be as scary as it is exciting – will set you up for the amazing adventure of studying abroad.

“It is this sense of self, based upon personal philosophy, that is key to feeling courageous enough to enjoy the student journey,” Perl explained.

In the words of French novelist Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.

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