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Peace of Mind: The Struggles Faced by International Students

Over a quarter of students in the UK report having a mental health problem, but how is this reflected in Cardiff’s international student population?

The pressures of university education combined with the stress of moving away from home have led to high levels of mental health illnesses within UK students. Then again, leaving home becomes a whole other matter when you’re moving from overseas compared to from 40 miles down the M4.

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The latest YouGov student survey figures show that depression and anxiety are the most common forms of mental health illness in UK students. Combine this with the fact that 27% of students report to have a mental health issue, and that 70% of students know someone with a mental health problem – the scope of the issue suddenly becomes pretty serious.

But international students often have more hurdles to overcome when studying at university, as the combination of culture shock, language barriers, being alone during holidays and a time difference from their home country create extra stress. After all, culture underlies most social interactions, so living abroad creates a drastic change to your social and support network.

“Home students have common interests to talk about, which international students lack,” said Dhriti (name changed to remain anonymous), an international student in her fourth year at Cardiff, who suffers with anxiety and depression.

“In my first year in halls, I had five flat mates, all of them British. While they were all lovely people, we never got close because conversations were always a problem – not because of language but because of subject matter.”

“The lack of closeness with my flatmates made my depression worse. Staying away from home and then not feeling connected with people you’re living with can be quite daunting.”

Cardiff University Students’ Union organises events throughout the year to raise awareness of mental health

Dhriti came to Cardiff in 2013, claiming that culture shock luckily didn’t affect her as her upbringing was always liberal, but says that others students from small towns often experience it. It doesn’t help that most gatherings at university are based on the medium of alcohol, leaving it harder for some international students to break the ice during their first weeks in the country.

“Most people from conservative Asian backgrounds won’t feel comfortable meeting people through alcohol, especially when they’re already experiencing staying away from home and new things around them,” said Dhriti. “The [UK’s] drinking culture scares them at first and that’s why many students group together based on their nationalities.”

“Overall, I have loved each and every minute of my time here at Cardiff. Thankfully once I found new activities, I found better support groups,” said Dhriti. “But it shouldn’t be left on the individual, support should already be there. My years with mental health problems made me want to beat it, but for many [lack of support] could very easily just sink them further in.”

Photo by Cardiff University International Office

Pressure to do well academically is higher for international students due to higher university fees. Photo by Cardiff University International Office

Having already suffered with mental health issues for four years whilst growing up in New Delhi, Dhriti welcomed how seriously the topic is taken in the UK when she moved to Cardiff.

“Mental health is still not understood [in India] and taken as taboo by many. It was always difficult to talk about it.”

This problem of foreign ignorance towards mental health is one that Cardiff University Students’ Union recognises. Although the union puts the support of students at the forefront of its work, the organisation still meets many difficulties in delivering these services in a completely effective manner.

“Our biggest challenge regarding the mental health of international students is the stigma associated with it for them,” said the Students with Disabilities Campaign Officer for the students’ union, Charlie Knights. “There is a culture barrier, both in their ability to recognise their mental health as a serious problem, and our staff’s ability to recognise these beliefs and the reasons behind them.”

Research by Nottingham University in 2011 into the mental health support needs of international students came to much the same conclusions. Focussing on Chinese and Malaysian students, the investigation found that students worried about mental health stigma when seeking help, alongside differences of culture and language. It was recommended that student awareness of services was increased and that all university staff should undergo specialist training to allow greater understanding and an ability to overcome the current barriers.

Integrating into UK life can be difficult for international students. Photo by Cardiff University

Integrating into UK life can be difficult for international students. Photo by Cardiff University

“I went to the [Cardiff University] counselling service once and it was very difficult to explain to her what sort of background and upbringing I come from and why certain things affect me differently because of that,” said Dhriti. “When you can see a counsellor struggling to empathise with your situation, you start to doubt yourself as to whether your problems are real or not.”

The need to improve the support provided for international students seems to be widely recognised, with further advisory publications released by national UK charities, such as YoungMinds in their ‘Stressed Out and Struggling Project’. The paper further emphasises the importance of continuing this support throughout holiday periods, when international students may stay at university with the pressure of deadlines looming, whilst most other students move back home.

“I have never stayed in Cardiff during holidays before but my best friend has, and honestly there wasn’t much for her to do, “said Cardiff Student Union’s International Student Campaign Officer, Vaishanavi Sayal. “The union and university currently publish holiday tips time to time, but they’re normally very generic, vague and only have information you already know.”

On a positive note, Cardiff Students’ Union states that all students receive the same services and have the same access to support systems, regardless of their nationality. This support clearly needs to improve, but with students pushing for change within the university and students’ union, alongside the rising awareness of mental health in the UK, the future looks to see services progress for both international and home students at Cardiff.

If you find you are struggling with your mental health, contact your GP, and if you are a Cardiff University student then you can also seek advice from the university’s Student Support Centres.