According to the Faculty of Arts & Science’s website, “International students come from more than 140 different countries and make up nearly 25 per cent of U of T’s student population.” Given that international students comprise a significant portion of the university’s membership, it is important to recognize their unique concerns and the stressors that they face, specifically with respect to mental health. As an international student, I can understand the difficulties that come with adapting to, and becoming familiar with a new country.
There are certainly many benefits to being an international student, including receiving a better education, broadening perspectives on different issues, and developing new language skills. To travel to new countries is often to indulge in novel experiences that contribute not only to academic but personal growth.
Such learning, however, is often undertaken with greater risks and stresses than that of a domestic student, due to the learning curve of being in such a vastly different environment. Coping with such unfamiliar rules can take a toll on students, both physically and mentally.
Cultural norms and subjects of conversation, for instance, can put strains on even the most casual interactions between international and domestic students. Take the awkwardness of attempting to meet someone new, and compound that with a stark lack of similarity in background and values. In a similar vein, the language barriers international students face can hinder full participation in typical social meet and greet events.
These obstacles can often make it feel like international students must start from scratch with respect to both social and professional relationships. Lacking readily-available and long-established systems of support from family and friends back home, these students have to manage various challenges on their own. Such isolation makes it more likely for international students to spiral into negative health patterns.
If matters escalate, ongoing worries about academics and friendships can result in the development of anxiety, depression, or other psychological disorders. This, in turn, can impact the student’s study habits, diet, sleep, and other elements necessary for success at school and beyond.
Although the university provides psychological counselling and other beneficial services through the Health and Wellness Centre, improvements to these services can be made simply by increasing awareness of their availability within the international student community. Strategies for doing this include better promotion of events during mental health awareness month, as well as facilitating ongoing discussions and focus groups with relevant community members. Considering that international students may be particularly affected by stress, it is also important to ensure that these services provide culturally sensitive programming that is cognizant of the particular circumstances that international students must grapple with.
Promoting the well-being of international students at the university will ensure that these students have the best educational experience possible. It is important to send the message that international students are welcome at U of T, and an important part of our community. Working on mental health service awareness is an important first step in this regard.