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The Mental Health Challenges of Studying Abroad

A look at the difficulties international students face.

Key points

  • Cultural shock and homesickness may be the most common first symptoms of mental health discomfort in international students.
  • Stress, anxiety, sleep problems, depression, financial burden, and access to food are also aggravators of international students' mental health.
  • Language barriers, an unfamiliar mental health system, and misinformation make it difficult for international students to seek help.
Tim Gouw/Unsplash, Creative Commons
Tim Gouw/Unsplash, Creative Commons

Co-authored by Daniel Sanchez Morales and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.

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 the University of Toronto, said that she started suffering from multiple panic attacks during her second year. She didn’t know what to do and didn’t know of any support offered at the university.

International students may initially be attracted by the education quality 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 at the University of Toronto, Canada’s multicultural environment made it a bit easier to adapt, especially as a minority. She said that it offered her a safe and peaceful environment overall.

Expectations and dreams start to get clouded by mental health challenges once students arrive in the country. Emily explained that cultural shock and homesickness are by far the most common first symptoms of mental health discomfort. Adapting those values to yourself can be challenging as different societies hold different norms. It can feel like a huge pressure to unlearn things you thought were your reality and learn something new.

Gigi added that language barriers posed a big challenge when interacting with others, making it difficult to connect with peers and share their feelings in school. She explained that the language used in school and casual conversation is different, and she struggled a lot with that. Grammar structures in English are different from her mother tongue, so she also had to spend more than usual studying and doing assignments to reach certain grades and had less time to enjoy with her 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 explained that, for example, students 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 clarified this misconception, stating that the Canadian immigration system has three types of inadmissibility: danger to the public, health danger to public safety, and excessive demand for health or social services. Most of the time, disclosing mental health problems does not cause harm to one's immigration admissibility.

Systemic issues also play a role. Emily explained that the amount of tuition fees paid by international students does 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 described 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 explained 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.

Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Daniel Sanchez Morales is a contributing writer at the Trauma and Mental Health Report.

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