Mental Health: What it Means for International Students and How You Can Help

Travel blogs and the Instagram community have set a narrative, from the outside at least, that those who live abroad for an extended period of time are extroverts, with a healthy state of mind. This simply isn’t true, and I’m sure many of those bloggers will be the first to admit it. Travelling and studying abroad changes every aspect of a person’s life, and this, whether for better or worse (or both), has an impact on their mental health.

Studying abroad takes courage. It requires a young person to jump into the unknown. The reality of studying abroad is that a young adult is taken out of their comfort zone; they are away from their childhood friends, in a different country to their family, and, in many cases, delving into an entirely new way of living and perceiving the world. This adjustment takes time.

Those extra pressures are adding to what is already considered to be a stressful period during a young adult’s life. While university is a rewarding and enjoyable experience for students, bouts of depression and loneliness are not uncommon during a time that will see them make new friends, wade their way through piles of coursework, as well as living away from home for the first time in their lives. In fact, in a study of more than 43,000 Canadian university students, 66 per cent reported feeling “very lonely” in the past year. Furthermore, some 30 per cent of student felt “very lonely” within the past two weeks, and a shocking 44 per cent said they felt “so depressed that it was difficult to function” in the past year.

The need to suddenly adapt to completely new environments, routines and stressful situations can cause underlying mental health issues to rise to the surface. Thankfully, attitudes towards mental health are changing. While research is still limited in comparison to physical illnesses, there is more information available and more services dedicated to helping those with mental health issues than ever before.


Common mental health issues

Culture shock and homesickness are both common causes of depression and anxiety for international students. Mental health does not discriminate. International students can be affected by mental health, whether they have underlying issues or not. The most common mental health issues among international students include:

Major depressive disorder: Depression is the most prevalent psychiatric disorder and symptoms typically present themselves in adolescence. It is characterized by mood dysregulation, a persisting sadness or lack of interest, accompanied by negative changes in appetite, sleep, concentration, or energy, as well as the presence of agitation, slowed thought and movement, or suicidal thoughts.

Anxiety: Anxiety is characterized by excessive worrying and sometimes physical symptoms (e.g., heart racing, gastrointestinal issues, sweating). This can have an impact on an international student’s ability to make new friends or dive into new challenges.

Bipolar Disorder: A person suffering from bipolar disorder will experience episodes of major depression as well as manic mood swings. Mania is characterized by elevated, “high” or hyper mood that is not reflective of one’s usual character. It can result in impulsive behaviour that leads to negative consequences.


Educators can make a difference

A survey of 15 universities and colleges across Canada, from The Star and Ryerson University, found all but one have increased their mental health budgets over the past five years in a bid to help the increasing number of students seeking mental health services.

On an individual level, educators are in a unique position to have a positive impact on the mental health of their students. Educators have the privilege to work closely with their students, building a professional, but close, relationship. A student may not be ready to acknowledge a mental health issue, or may not even be aware there is a problem. Educators should be aware of some of the key behaviours to look out for in regard to mental health; including major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.

Educators should consult their school guidelines on how to handle mental health issues on school grounds, but that initial contact from an educator can provide the first vital step in recognizing that there is a problem. Teachers play a powerful role in a student’s life and have a unique position of influence. The steps an educator takes to help a student recognize, and deal with, a mental health issue can have a profound impact on their future success.


A friendly voice

Travel insurance, and the agents who offer it, generally only come to mind when a physical injury or accident takes place. But agents play an important role in communicating with international students, making them aware that help is on hand if needed. Insurance companies are here to help. Many offer coverage for pre-existing mental health issues, and some offer support services for those who may be vulnerable to mental health issues.

StudyInsured by Ingle International offers insurance plans to international students looking to study in Canada. The Stay Healthy at School program includes a 24/7 multilingual mental health support phone line to its international student groups along with a health & wellness library as part of our commitment to preventative health care. Students and administrators can access Ingle’s in-house 24/7 multilingual emergency assistance, mental wellness support services, access to medical facilities wherever and whenever they are, as well as customized web and mobile content.

For more articles on health and travel tips, visit Ingle International‘s blog page.

Written by Susanne Hendrickson, Director of Sales at StudyInsured, this article was first published on StudyTravel magazine

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