man wearing a white top is looking at a macbook pro and looking stressed out

When International Students Struggle with Mental Health

International students are currently facing a mental health crisis, with elevated suicide rates and a lack of resources to support their needs. Limitations – such as language barriers, an unfamiliar mental health system, and misinformation – make it more difficult for international students to seek help. Gigi (name changed for anonymity), an international student from Japan studying at University of Toronto, says:

“During my second year, I start suffering from multiple panic attacks. I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know any support offered at university. I didn’t know what nearby options I had.”

International students may be attracted initially by quality of education when applying to different countries. Accessing a study permit allows an international student to work up to 20 hours off-campus, an option for those who need to cover everyday expenses while studying abroad. For Emily (name changed for anonymity), an international student also at University of Toronto:

“Canada’s multicultural environment makes it a bit easier to adapt, especially if you come from a minority. It offers a safer and peaceful environment overall.”

man sits on a bed with white sheets and looks sad

Expectations and dreams start to get clouded by mental health challenges once students arrive to the country. Emily explains that cultural shock and homesickness are by far the most common first symptoms of mental health discomfort:

A different society holds different norms. You must adapt those values onto yourself. It’s a huge pressure to unlearn things that you thought were your reality and learn something new.”

Gigi adds that language barriers posed a big challenge when trying to interact with others, making it difficult to connect with peers and share their feelings while in school:

“The language use in school and in a casual conversation is different, and I struggled a lot with that. Grammar structures in English are different from my mother tongue language, so I also had to spend more than usual studying and doing assignments to reach certain grades and had less time to enjoy with my friends.”

Cultural stigma can limit the willingness to explore mental health support. Lauren Shannan is an immigration and paralegal consultant for international students at NextGen and explains that, for example, students coming from Asian countries like India or China find it difficult to talk about their mental health due to fear or shame. Some of this fear may stem from the belief that disclosing mental health struggles may impact the immigration process. Shannan clarifies this misconception:

“The Canadian immigration system has three types of inadmissibility: danger to public, health danger to public safety, and excessive demand on health or social services. Most of the time, disclosing mental health problems do not cause immigration harm.”

man sitting on a bench with a hat on and looks sad

Systemic issues also play a role. Emily explains that the amount of tuition fees paid by international students do not reflect the quality of support they receive when they need it:

“I think that a lot of institutions are not doing enough to support international students. It’s unfair that we’re paying much higher tuition than domestic students and we do not receive additional accommodations. For example, sometimes professors don’t realise the amount of effort we put in to connect to online classes from our home country or to accommodate to be in-person.”

Shannan describes additional problems such as stress, anxiety, sleep problems, depression, financial burden, and access to food as serious aggravators of mental health. Affordability often comes at a cost and Shannan explains that sometimes international students opt to rent uncomfortable spaces or live in basements with multiple roommates to lower their living expenses. The pressure and confusion of moving overseas can take a toll on international students’ ability to take care of their mental health.

-Daniel Sanchez Morales, Contributing Writer

Image Credits:
Feature:  Tim Gouw at Unsplash, Creative Commons

First: Joel Overbeck
 at Unsplash, Creative Commons
Second: whoislimos
at Unsplash, Creative Commons