Depression Among International Students

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About two months ago, I  found out that I have light depression. I don’t even know when exactly it  started – I just remember most of time I felt unhappy and cried a lot, and at the end I desperately wanted to see a psychologist.I did see the doctor – in my homeland, China. Having a kind of  30-minute conversation with the doctor is not a common thing in Chinese hospitals as there are too many patients waiting and all the staff just try to work as efficiently as possible.

Depression is the second leading cause of disability. It is understood to be a problem of internalisation which causes a wide variety of symptoms such as excessive sadness and hopelessness, loss of interest in activities and feeling very tearful. It is not a sign of weakness or something you can “snap out of” by “pulling yourself together”, according to NHS.

I always felt very stressed and depressed from the time I came to UK for my undergraduate study. International students, in fact, are a group which could be easily overlooked but are particularly likely to experience depression – whether this is noticed by others or not. A study by Carroll J and Ryan J in 2005, Teaching International Students Improving Learning for all, shows that there are high proportions of students who become depressed while they are studying abroad. This group faces lots of difficulties; for instance, loneliness, language problems, cultural shock, accommodation issues, or even adapting to a new weather.

“Studying in the west is absolutely a big challenge for me at this age and it is hard to understand and adjust to a new culture. There is such a big cultural shock – we think differently, we speak differently, and we behave differently,” says Noriko Yoshida, a international student of Japanese background who is studying at the University of Westminster. “In Japan, students normally do not disagree with tutors. But in here, teachers are happy to see students have different opinions.” She mentions that when she writes essays, she  couldn’t always reach the standard that western tutors experct. “Our thinking mode is different. In Japanese culture, we always think in a ‘because…so…’ way, rather than ‘I am telling you this’ at a very first place.”

how to express yourself

The difference between western and eastern lifestyleHow to express yourself. (Blue=western; Red=eastern)

“Language is another issue for me,“ Noriko continues. “Sometimes when my tutor is telling a joke in the class, every classmate is laughing, but I don’t even understand what the laughing point is! It is all about a sort of uncomfortable feelings, and at that moment, when everyone is laughing but I can’t even force myself to do a fake laugh, I feel lonely.”

Language indeed is one of big issues that international students are likely to face when they come to study in Britain. It can be a very big challenge for them from very first moment when they arrive. Even though a lot of international students have learnt English at their home country for so many years, and have passed the academic English tests (ILETS or TOFEL for example) before going abroad, there is still a a considerable gap for them to adapt to.

However, it is not only students from Asia who experience cultural shock,: even European students can feel it, too.  Agata Palomo, who came from Spain to the UK two years ago for her foundation study, explains how she experiences the cultural differences between her home country and UK. “Spain is a hospitable country – friends always hug and kiss each other when meeting. However, Britain seems like a ‘colder’ country. They always try to keep distance with you, which is the feeling, or culture, that I don’t get used to.”

As more international students come to Britain, this is an issue that universities have to learn to cope with. The International Student Support (ISS) service of University College London receives hundreds of emails and calls every year from international students. “We do understand that moving to a new country to commence studies can be both an exciting and challenging experience. Nearly all the universities have a student service department which assists international students as much as possible with settling into the campus community. We highly recommend students who think they may have problems to contact us. If you do think you may be depressed, the best choice is to seek help from your GP. The sooner you see a doctor, the sooner you can be on the way to get solutions.” Victoria Young, who is currently working at ISS department of UCL, told Artefact.

“Cultural shock is a normal and expected thing as one of the main reasons for international students to get depression.” Joan Elumelu, Practice Nurse from Princess Surgery Group Practice, told Artefact. “There are ways to assist international students to prevent them being depressed.” She offers two tips to overcome it while studying abroad.

Firstly, sign up to activities and get more exercise. Regardless of whether you are in a different country for three months or three years, you need to adjust to the new life which you are creating for yourself.

Secondly, be around friendly faces. Loneliness is one of the major causes of depression. If you are having  problems navigating the language or culture – break out and seize the new experiences in front of you. There are many people at your university or accommodation looking for friends too. Invite them to have dinner, go to see a movie, or go and explore the new city together. Having more friends is a good way to cheer yourself up, and also a good way to practice English.

Recently I have been reading The Road Less Traveled  by Morgan Scott Peck, which is a great book from an international student’s perspective. “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

We’re all prone to feeling down in new environments and new challenges – it is OK to be upset, but limit the time you allow yourself to give in to it. Making it through the rough times, while more difficult, is absolutely more rewarding.

There must be one day – one day in the soon enough future – when I will eventually treat London as my another home. At that day, when I step back and look what I have been gone through, I can be very proud by myself.


Featured image by Patrick Armstrong at Flickr

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Chinese background, studying BA Journalism at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.
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