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Mental Health & International Students

By March 25, 2024No Comments

Mental health might be the last thing that an international student considers when they embark on their new journey to study in Canada. At the very beginning, it might be very exciting to get a chance to come to Canada to fulfill their dream, but facing the reality often is overwhelming for students. They often do not consider the linguistic, cultural, financial, and academic barriers they will have to face in Canada. Although these barriers apparently seem to be often heard and easy to overcome, facing all these in a foreign land might have a huge toll on students’ mental health. Many international students report feelings of being overwhelmed, and often the excitement turns into disappointment and exhaustion, leading to depression. Investigating barriers that one might face and taking necessary preparations are the biggest keys to a successful transition and progression in their new endeavor.

Challenges that International Students might consider before Arrival:

  • Language Barrier: Studying in a foreign language is the biggest challenge for an international student. Language barrier not only disadvantages students in their classroom learning, interaction and performances and assessments, but also hinders their social interactions and extracurricular activities. Therefore, students should explore all linguistic and academic services and resources that their institutions provide for international students. Most importantly, students should develop a strong linguistic skill in English before they endeavor higher education in Ontario, Canada.  
  • Culture Shock & Shift: The differences in food, social customs and norms, and communication strategies pose a great challenge to international students’ acculturation into Canadian cultures, which in result causes social isolation and burn out feelings. International students center in students’ institutions can help them navigate this difficult situation. 
  • Financial Burden: Even though students come to Canada knowing the high tuition fees that they have to pay for their programs, many might not be fully aware of the high living cost, price hike for daily needs, and limited opportunities for part time work for students in Canada. The financial challenges often intensify students’ psychological struggle to cope up with the new culture and social life since they might have to spend most of their time to figure out their financial means. Therefore, students should plan the budgets on both tuition fees and living expenses in Canada before their arrival. They should also explore the part time job opportunities. Many universities offer work study options within the campus. Most renowned institutions also offer bursaries and financial support that international students might be eligible to apply for.
  • Housing: Difficulties to rent a place, high renting cost, lack of campus housing options, and insufficient clean, safe, and well-maintained residences have been causing many problems for international students in Canada. In addition, sharing a living space with roommates may lead to conflicts and negative impact on students’ academic performances as well as mental health. Therefore, students must finalize their accommodation arrangement before they fly to Canada. This might require extra financial arrangements too. Many universities and colleges have their dorms or student housing options, for which students may have to apply even before they get confirmation of their admission. 
  • Social Abuse and Difficulty in Social Integration: International students may face discrimination, prejudices, harassment, and microaggression based on their race, ethnicity, language, nationality, or religion, which make them feel humiliated and excluded. These social abuses make their journey more difficult. Students should be aware that such abuses exist in Canada even though the country is very welcoming for immigrants and international students. However, Canada also has structural support to address these abuses, which students should explore.
  • Time Management and Adaptation to New Lifestyles: International students will need to adapt to new time management strategies in order to balance their academic work with other life responsibilities. Apart from the regular life responsibilities for which they have no support here, most students have to work to manage their tuition fees and living costs as well. Such a lifestyle affects their academic performances as well as limits their opportunities to have a healthy social life. So, students should be prepared to adapt to new lifestyles that might be full of new challenges. Skills on driving, cooking, and working might be needed simultaneously with academic performances.
  • Academic Expectation & Learning Style: Students identifying with different cultural backgrounds may have individualized understandings of class performance and interactions, academic honesty, and good writing skills. The new standard for academic performance is difficult to adjust with promptly. Students who are used to different power dynamics in the class and learning styles may struggle to keep up with the expected academic performance and progression. Most institutions have services and resources to support students on how to navigate academic challenges and expectations. Students should explore these resources and if needed, reach out to the instructors directly. Academic advisors are the best persons to reach out for such support.
  • Health care: Given the expensive health insurance and limited coverage that most post-secondary institutes have for international students, they often do not receive the needed health care. Moreover, the existing health care services in Canada such as long waiting time, insufficient health care workers, and Canadian health care protocol increases the crisis for these students. Also, the limited or no mental health support that the higher education institutions provide to international students intensifies the mental health crisis further. Every student must consider having health insurance even though it costs extra money. Also, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and food habit can avoid many health hazards in the long run.
  • Homesickness: Missing family and friends are expected for these students; however, homesickness can be intensified by the social and cultural isolation and the difficulties to adjust into the new country’s culture and norms that they experience. Being in touch with family members and friends back home as well as building up a social life in Canada is crucial for mental health. 
  • Canadian Weather: Students usually find Canadian winter very harsh and difficult to cope up with. Many students, especially South Asian students who are not used to such cold winters, find it extreme and lonely. While it takes a lot of time to get used to this weather, students have to commute and attend to their academic requirements as well as financial arrangements. While getting used to the harsh winter weather takes time, precautions can be taken to avoid sickness, injuries, and accidents. Timely flu shots, appropriate clothes and layering, and right winter boots can help someone a long way.
  • Disconnected Curriculum and Academic Environment: Although Canadian higher education has a reputation for maintaining a high standard curriculum and post-secondary environment, the curriculum, university culture, and overall environment are highly Westernized and hardly recognize the diverse backgrounds these students have. Very little academic and pedagogical resources have been created to provide academic support to international students. Students struggle academically and feel disconnected, left out, and excluded. Although students cannot change curriculum, they can share their opinions and perspectives inside and outside the classroom which will create awareness in the academia, as well as boost their confidence.

Challenges Faced by International Students in Canada has discussed some of these barriers which current and upcoming international students might find beneficial to explore in advance to navigate the challenges that they might encounter in Canada.

Impact on Mental Health

Facing all these challenges in a foreign country may have a huge impact on the mental health of these young students. Also, many cultures across the world have social stigma connected to mental health. When it comes to mental health, most international students do not speak openly about their well-being. They remain silent; they hide and often push themselves harder to survive. Many students do not even share their states with their family back home since they think it will worry their parents more. Also, they hardly have anyone here to speak to. Although most post-secondary institutions have some support system for students’ mental health, that support is not enough and is not culturally responsive or sensitive to the unique needs of a diverse group of students. In fact, language barriers, cultural understanding about mental health, and financial crisis can make accessing these supports more difficult. The consequence is not connected to students’ retention, success, and progression only; it often leads some helpless students to drug addiction or substance use disorder, even to an unexpected death. Multiple news and reports have indicated an increasing suicide rate for many South Asian students, especially Panjabi students in Canada.

What to Do (actions) 

Proper research, planning, and preparation can ease many of the difficulties mentioned above, if not all. Some measures have been mentioned above. The following are the gist of some major actions that should be considered while planning to study in Canada:

  • Explore the university and the city websites, social media posts, and all other relevant websites to know about the culture, norms, and environment.
  • Budget and plan about the financial expenses. Please do not plan for the tuition fees only; plan for the living expenses too.
  • Do not plan to earn the tuition fees and living expenses by working in Canada.
  • Explore information on work opportunities thoroughly.
  • Reach out to the university and other students for authentic information on academic and social life in Canada.
  • Work on language and social communication skills.
  • Do not rely entirely on the agent’s information and social media posts.
  • Explore the resources and services that the institution, city, and the different communities provide.
  • Please explore and investigate all information thoroughly by yourself and be critical while making the decision.
  • Reach out to people or different community supporters or college/university designated information.
  • Build up a healthy social life once you are in Canada.

Campus Mental Health has many resources and toolkits to self-assess or navigate such situations.

Studying in Canada should be the most beautiful and precious decision in a student’s life, not the other way around.