Guest ColumnsInternational Students' Association

Mental health stressors for international students, what are they and how to cope

International students deal with different stressors than domestic students that can take a toll on their mental health.

This guest column is written through a partnership with the University of Alberta International Students’ Association and The Gateway.

We all have heard about the importance of mental health. 

It is like diet, where there is no one-size-fits-all approach — and particularly for international students, positive mental health is harder to achieve as we face unique stressors. This article aims to shed a light on what those are and how we can cope effectively. 

To be able to take care of our mental health we must first know what it refers to. Mental health is a state of well-being. When we have proper mental health, we are emotionally stable to function daily. It affects how we act, think, feel, as well as how we relate to others, handle stress, and make choices. In essence, mental health is the foundation of our ability to function in our environment.

Everyone deals differently with varying stressors affecting our mental health such as illness, financial difficulties, work-related stress, among others. Yet, international students face certain unique stressors making it harder for us to maintain good emotional health if we do not learn how to deal with them properly.

When English is your second language, giving presentations or participating in class discussions can be highly stressful and trigger anxiety attacks. Language barriers are real and as international students, we live and perform outside our comfort zone every day. Having an accent or being unable to pronounce correctly certain words can have a toll on us. 

Beatriz, a former graduate student at the U of A from Brazil, said, “back home I was a grammar nerd [but] living in my second language, I saw myself making basic grammar mistakes and unable to correctly pronounce some sounds [which] felt like losing a part of my personality. I [also] love making puns and wordplays in my first language, which proved to be untranslatable and very hard to nail in English. I had to regain my voice and sense of humour all over again.”

Culture shock is another stressor that every international student experiences. When I moved to Canada I was so excited, the first time I went to campus I was so happy. Then I had my first class in a second language with a professor that to me seemed like Eminem was giving the class He spoke so fast. I had no friends and did not know anyone to ask for help, and suddenly I felt out of place. I’ve worked so hard to be here and every fibre of my being was telling me I was a fraud and I should go back. 

It took me a while to adjust, one thing that helped was asking a domestic student who was taking the same course as me for help. I also took some workshops to understand Canadian culture and be able to manage the culture shock more effectively. 

Living away from family is a challenge, moving to a different country away from family is more challenging. Recognizing that culture shock is a thing and what you are feeling is normal can make a huge difference. Familiarizing ourselves with the host culture, I would argue, is a fundamental step to adjusting.

When there is a crisis at home like a family member becomes very ill, parents divorce, a close relative dies, natural disasters or government instabilities, being away unable to help could impact our ability to focus on our studies. We feel helpless, anxious and guilty for taking care of our future while our family and country are suffering.

We are half a world away and no amount of technology can bridge that divide.

Being admitted to an international program is a reflection of our academic success back home. Our parents have spent time and money to support our studies, and sometimes the investment comes with high expectations that may turn into pressure and a burden. When we don’t perform as we hoped, we can feel ashamed and undeserving of that support as if we’re disappointing our family by not getting a high grade. Aligning expectations is a tough process, especially when we tied our success to our grades. However, it is crucial to do so to be able to perform in our courses and other activities without burning out.

Multiple stressors can affect international students to the point of developing mental illnesses such as anxiety, or mood and stress-related disorders. Even though Canada is big on mental health, in some of our home countries there is a large stigma surrounding mental illnesses which may impact our ability to seek help because we’re scared of being labelled as “weak”, “crazy”, “inadequate”, “lazy” and so on. Some of the signs to look for when struggling are deterioration of personal hygiene, dramatic weight changes, visible mood changes, unusual behaviours, drug and alcohol abuse, academic problems, excessive absences, or threat of harm to self or others.

If you or someone you know is experiencing one or more of these signs please reach out for help. 

Here are a few self-care strategies that can make you feel better:

Regular nutritious meals: To function well in our day-to-day activities we need to fuel our body and brain with minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients. Being a full-time student can mean having no-time to cook so we settle for fast food instead. There are many barriers to cooking: time, energy, skill, and money. To reduce the time-barrier to cooking, we can prepare ahead (cooking in bulk on weekends) or maintain a stock of essential, easy-to-put-together ingredients like frozen vegetables, frozen fruits, canned beans, quinoa and dressings that can be used to make nutritious smoothies, stir-fries, or bowls really fast. 

For Taranjot, an international student studying engineering, cooking skills were another big barrier. “There is very little variety when I look for affordable, healthy, and balanced lacto-vegetarian food on campus.  I knew cooking was the way for me to eat food that met these criteria. I found printing out a few attractive one-page recipes from the internet and following them by-the-book to be a great way to learn cooking. I reuse the recipes I have printed after a few weeks – each of them takes about 30 min to make – and decide on a few of them every week when I go grocery shopping.  I got the idea from a meal-kit delivery service I tried once that I really liked.”

Exercise: Many studies have linked exercise to stress reduction. Taking a break from sitting all-day even if it’s just for stretching or jogging-in-place while listening to your favourite song can significantly impact your wellbeing.

Sleep: I know this one is a tough one with the workload we have. But there is a strong correlation between good sleep and good grades. Next time you want to pull an all-nighter remember that we need between seven to nine hours of sleep to learn all the information we studied during the day.

Deep breathing and meditation: Taking ten minutes each day to do a guided meditation or deep breathing exercises have shown to decrease anxiety. There are a lot of free resources out there, one of my favourites is the insight timer app. It is free and has tons of guided meditations and other resources.  I’ve found that meditation and sitting with myself in self-awareness often bring big-picture insights and helps me remember priorities. 

Connecting with someone:  Talking to someone can be a great way to discuss and release your own feelings, and many times, can bring about an instant change in mood. You can talk to those who you feel most comfortable with: close friends, family members, mentors, counsellors (including those at Counselling and Clinical Services UAlberta), the Peer Support Center, the Landing, the Sexual Assault Center, a physician, colleagues at work, etc.   

Remember you are not alone. Learning coping mechanisms and talking to somebody can make a huge difference. The ISA is here to help. 

This guest column is written through a partnership with the University of Alberta International Students’ Association (ISA) and The Gateway. To learn more about the ISA or to get involved with them visit their website.

Ana Arvizu

Ana Arvizu is an International Students' Association contributor to The Gateway.

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