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Mental Health Advice for International Students

health and wellness
COVID-19
Last updated on November 12, 2020

COVID, exams in another language, culture shock—there’s a lot to be stressed about when you are an international student. We talked to a licensed psychologist and fellow international student about mental health resources and self-care tips.

A female international student with glasses pushed to the top of her head sits across from a male therapist during a mental health wellness appointment

Exams, homework, internships, work-study jobs, your social life, family issues, finances—stress will always be part of the college student experience. Add to that COVID-19, possibly living in a new country or campus environment, and the effects on your mental health can be extra hard. 

How COVID Is Compounding College Student Stress

Whether you are directly impacted by COVID (health of a family member, loss of a job, school delays) or just anxious when reading daily headlines, this pandemic is making everyone stressed in new and unexpected ways. 

According to a July 2020 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 53% of Americans reported negative mental health impacts due to coronavirus, up from 32% in March. Social isolation, disruption of daily routines, job insecurity, and anxiety around the unknown have left many of us exhausted and overwhelmed. 

What are some of the ways COVID may be impacting your health and wellness? According to the CDC, some possible stress-induced behaviors and health outcomes include:

  • Generalized or acute anxiety about our health or loved ones, finances, job security, or support services

  • Sleeplessness or insomnia

  • Depression or loneliness

  • Difficulty concentrating or doing simple tasks

  • Substance abuse

  • Mood swings or outbursts

  • Loss of appetite or increased appetite

As a college student, you may be experiencing difficulties with isolation or loneliness, making new friends, going on dates, or studying for exams. You may be homesick or, as an international student studying in the USA, experiencing culture shock

Online learners may be experiencing similar struggles, along with FOMO (fear of missing out), an added layer of isolation, screen fatigue, or difficulties studying at home with family around.

While these feelings are not ideal, they are real, and they are normal. You may be finding your US university experience is not what you wanted it to be. You may have been anticipating going to games at the big stadium, making new friends in class or at parties, or participating in an internship, and now many of those activities are on hold. You may be annoyed, upset, or angry that your expectations and hopes for the semester—especially for first-year students and seniors—have been disrupted. 

The feelings are real, but they are not facts, says Dr. Jennifer Gottlieb, a clinical psychologist, teaching associate at Harvard Medical School, and alumnus of American University. When you feel this way, she suggests you pause and reflect. 

“This means taking stock of some of the things you are telling yourself about the current situation: about COVID, remote or on-campus learning, living with family or being alone at school, your future,” says Gottlieb. “Often, during times of stress, our thoughts become unbalanced. We might ‘catastrophize,’ [allowing] ourselves to jump to conclusions or assume that the worst-case scenario is going to happen, and then we end up believing those thoughts, and we become even more distressed.”

So, how do we know what are normal feelings versus ‘catastrophizing’? 

“You may find yourself [thinking]: ‘This is never going to end, and I’m never going to get to have a satisfying, enjoyable college experience, and my career and life will always be a mess!’” says Gottlieb. “Of course, that kind of thought is going to make you feel terrible. Allowing yourself to take that thought as fact can contribute to feelings of hopelessness, which can in turn make learning productively and staying healthy even more difficult.”

“Instead, when you notice yourself having that sort of thought, try to come up with something more balanced and accurate to tell yourself,” she continues. “Such as, ‘OK, this is a really difficult time for me and for everyone, and while things feel awful right now, that doesn’t mean it will be that way forever, and there are small things I can do right now in my daily life to reduce stress and have a little enjoyment during this time.’”

How to Know If You Need Help—and Where to Find It

It is important to know what your personal normal is, and how to recognize if university life or COVID’s “new normal” is negatively impacting your school work, mental health, physical health, job, or social relationships. 

A quick exercise: You may generally be the type of person who has trouble falling asleep. Right now, is it one or two nights here or there, or is it nearly every night? Many of us may miss lunch, because we got caught up at the library, but are you experiencing an extended loss of appetite and skipping lots of meals? Are you feeling nervous about an upcoming exam, and know it will pass? Or are you completely overwhelmed by anxiety and finding it hard to complete small tasks, or even to leave your dorm? It is up to each of us to know what is normal—and what is not.

Still not sure? You can take an anonymous emotional health screening, like Therapy Assistance Online, which Florida International University offers its students. These programs can help you evaluate yourself in private and then get advice on whether counseling is a good next step for you. 

Resources for Students on Campus

In many cultures and individual families, we are taught to “tough it out” and maybe ignore stress or certain feelings, but in the US, it is common to have a therapist, social worker, or mental health counselor.

Just because your home country may not see these sorts of struggles the same way doesn’t mean that you should feel like you can’t reach out here during your stay. In fact, that’s all the more reason to try out getting some support—think of it as a new cultural experience!”—Dr. Jennifer Gottlieb, clinical psychologist, Harvard Medical School teaching associate

“Our US health care system certainly is by no means perfect; however, there are many resources available, especially for students who may find themselves having a hard time,” Gottlieb continues.

After years of making excuses and not making time for herself, Daniela, an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois Chicago, recently found herself wanting to see a counselor for talk therapy. 

“Managing multiple responsibilities and facing the current pandemic has been significantly challenging,” says the Colombia native. “I decided that it is time to take care of myself. I recently reached out to the counseling center at UIC. I was impressed with how easy it was [to] access these resources. I am so excited about it and I am proud of myself for prioritizing my health.”

If you are or think you might be experiencing mental health issues due to COVID, school-related stress, or anything else, connect with your campus health services or a mental health professional right away. (If you are a student at a Shorelight university, your advisor can help you set up an appointment.)

Online Resources for Students

If you are learning remotely, you may be feeling more isolated than usual, craving in-person interactions, or wishing you could have the campus experience. 

Dr. Gottlieb suggests trying to re-create the on-campus college experience in small ways. “Maybe a weekly Zoom coffee break with friends or a happy hour. Meet up with a friend in your town who is also now a remote college student and go for a walk at a scheduled time each week, or study outside together, and so on,” she says. “It won’t take the place of being on campus, but these small activities will make a difference in any feelings of isolation, loneliness, and FOMO you might find yourself having.”

Whether you are just feeling “a little down,” not like your usual self, or are experiencing more severe symptoms, check your university’s health services website to see what kind of online health care resources they offer. 

If you are a student at a Shorelight university and are learning remotely (or just prefer a virtual appointment), you have access to professional help through the International Student Support Program, which includes:

  • 24/7 online support for international students studying in the US

  • Counselors experienced in helping college students and cross-cultural populations

  • Native speakers or translation service supporting 200+ languages

Tips for Managing Stress and Self-care

Self-care isn’t just a buzzword—it is an ongoing necessity for all of us. Taking care of our physical and emotional needs helps us to better manage our day-to-day lives, social worlds, and professional relationships.

“Of course, there are the usual, but very important things that we all know are important to maintain—and sometimes we are better at these than other times,” says Dr. Gottlieb, who suggests paying close attention to:

  • Adequate sleep

  • Nutritious eating

  • Staying connected with loved ones

  • Consistent exercise

  • Keeping up with physical and mental health appointments

  • Managing alcohol and drug intake

A few more self-care ideas from Adelphi University:

  • Call a friend

  • Get a massage

  • Write in a journal

  • Meditate or pray

  • Go for walk outside

  • Take a technology break

  • Dance, sing, or play an instrument

  • Plan a day trip

  • Explore a new part of campus

“Take time for yourself,” says UIC student Daniela. “College is important, but nothing is more important than your health and well-being, so always have yourself as the main priority.”

How Keeping a Schedule Helps Manage Stress

Daniela was gleefully emphatic about her number-one tip to keep herself on track: “In order to manage stress, I need to have to-do lists!” she says. “Keeping my list updated makes me feel productive and it helps me to keep up with deadlines. At the beginning of the semester, I try to put all of the deadlines on my Google calendar, so I am able to see which deadline is coming up and stay on track. Additionally, if I know that I will have a busy day, I try to buy or cook food that I like [in order] to motivate myself!”

Dr. Gottlieb concurs: “One of the most useful ways to stave off overwhelming stress is to initiate some sort of consistent structure to your week. Try to keep as much of a schedule as possible, but do leave some room for flexibility in order to give yourself a break as needed. Don’t be too rigid about it. Sometimes the best stress reducer is to take that break!” She suggests a written or digital schedule—whatever is easiest for you to maintain both daily and all semester. 

“Each day should include a combination of things that bring both ‘mastery’—a sense of accomplishment, such as cleaning up your desk or tackling a first-draft outline for that paper—and ‘pleasure,’ pure enjoyment or relaxation, such as going for a hike or watching a funny TV show,” says Gottlieb. “Seinfeld” re-runs? We can handle that. Tasks like laundry, errands, classes, and appointments fall under “have-to’s.” 

“The goal is to work to bring all three—have-to, mastery, and pleasure activities—into balance,” says Gottlieb. “If there is too much of one category and not enough of another, we tend to feel depleted or stressed or bored or overwhelmed or unrelaxed, or some combo of these! So, take a look at your current schedule. Can you shift the balance a little bit? That’s a good first step and a skill that can take you through some challenging weeks of the semester, whether you are in-person or remote.”

Remember: This Is Not Forever, It Is Just for Now

You will get through this. This too shall pass. The only way over it is through it. 

These may seem like clichés, but they are also the truth. If there is a positive aspect of the COVID pandemic, it is that we have the opportunity to become more reflective, more appreciative of others, and kinder. Getting support from friends, classmates, family members, and mental health and wellness professionals is paramount to the college experience—and to getting through COVID. 

“This is an absolutely unprecedented and extremely challenging time to be a college student, and an international one at that!” says Gottlieb. “It’s important to be honest with yourself if you are having a hard time, and reach out to your program or university. Remember these basic tips: Give yourself a break, be kind to yourself, and pat yourself on the back for working so hard to manage life in another country during this pandemic! There are many people within your university here, and your home country, who want you to feel healthy and have a successful, enjoyable international learning experience.”

College abroad is difficult, but never doubt that is worth it.”—Daniela, UIC

“As an international student, I understand how lonely and challenging it can be,” Daniela says, “however, being abroad is a unique experience that I wouldn’t change for anything in the world. All of the struggle certainly pays off as you experience incredible personal growth, you learn about other cultures, and you master new skills. We are all feeling stressed, especially during these challenging times, so don’t forget to reach out to others if you are feeling low. You are not alone!”

Discover how Shorelight can help you make the most of your time studying in the US