I am an international student in the UK who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety twice, once in first year and once in second year. Life away from home and the lack of effective support on preventing mental disorders in international students facilitated the diagnosis.
I never thought being far away from home would be so difficult. I had lived on my own before. When I was in high school, I took a semester-long exchange programme in China, a country much different from my home country Mexico. I had dealt with the stress of not having my parents, my siblings, my relatives, my food, my traditions, my language. I had a blast in China. People had constantly said I was too mature for my age; I had the skills to temporarily move to the UK with no problems. Nonetheless, my experience in the UK has not been as positive.
The causes of mental disorders are always unclear. Some of my therapists and GPs attributed my diagnosis to my personality and brain biology. Maybe I am not as fitted to deal with the international student life as other people. Others said it was because of my unresolved childhood issues and the fact that I was becoming an adult. The only consensus was that my life as an international student was putting too much stress on my mental health.
Regardless of the causes of my diagnosis, one thing is true. I would have had the same diagnosis if I had stayed in Mexico, but the disorder would have had way less impact in my life.
I started having mood swings in my first year at Bath. I would be immensely happy one moment. Next, I would be the most miserable person in the universe. Soon enough my attention and study skills were severely impaired. I talked to my personal tutor, started applying for coursework extensions, yet nothing seemed to help. I was clearly falling behind my course objectives. I was once at the top of my class, and at that moment I was average at best.
Then anxiety attacks followed. Sometimes my mind raced through tons of thoughts and sensations in seconds. I would be obsessively hard-working and functional two or three days a week, but for the most of it, I would stay in bed at least four days a week. I was unable to get up, often even unable to eat. I felt so helpless, so hopeless. I planned to end my life so many times. This carried on for longer a year. The trip to the kitchen alone was daunting. It felt as if it took hours to get to the kitchen —just imagine how it felt like to even think about how far my family were.
One of the greatest things about the UK is that many people are happy to discuss mental health. This is, partly, why I am proud to be studying psychology here. There is much support, and much of that was shared with me, although not all that is as accessible to international students as it should be.
A main barrier is unconscious bias. There is too much emphasis on the “international student” label —which implies homesickness, cultural shock, and language barriers—, but so little focus on the mental disorders of international students. Many people in uni thought that I was not able to do as well as expected because I am an “international student” rather than looking at my actual disorder. I was not culturally-shocked, I was ill.
The messages that always reach international students are ‘you’re not really welcome here’, ‘we like your money, not your problems’. Positive messages, including support available, do not always reach us. In spite of the incredible support provided by my department, I still felt guilty when contacting Student Services and going to see my GP —and to be fair, I still struggle with this. As an international student immigrant, one inherently tries to cause as little inconvenience as possible. We do not always have a strong and clear support system. That is why I continuously pretended to be okay to my family, to my friends, to the university, and even myself. Nevertheless, deep inside a part of me knew what was happening, wanted to listen to the negative discourses, and just go home.
My counselling experience at university is very mixed. I appreciate all the services provided, the initiative, and efforts of various people in general. However, as both a psychology student and an international student I saw all of them need many more resources.
On one hand, it is the bureaucracy of Student Services. My counsellors were very skilled, but we had to pray that my illness was cured or at least manageable with the limited counselling sessions they could provide me. If I needed to get other services, my GP had to confirm my diagnosis and there is no way around this. Although it took time, my GP confirmed it, but once the diagnosis ‘expired’ Student Services stopped my support. This made the transition to ‘normal’ life very hard, which led me to the second diagnosis of depression and anxiety.
On the other hand, it was the treatment. I was provided Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Just as any other treatment, CBT has some limitations, but I felt like the fact that I am an international student made the limitations even more significant. Nobody made it clear how the barriers to being an international student were tackled. What I know is that I was not satisfied —no, it was not a language barrier—, but I was too anxious to say something at the time.
I am in my third year now, and I am not clinically depressed and anxious anymore. I would like my experience to encourage others to speak out even if it is not to the same extent. I love this country and the university, but I have seen that students with mental health issues are disadvantaged. Support and funding for students’ mental health needs to be substantially increased.
So, fellow student, speak up, support one another – you’re not alone! Talk to the SU, urge them to increase mental health funding and support for students in need. Talk to Student’s Services and the International Students’ Association (ISA). Universities; work with SU’s more closely to research the effectiveness of easing this pressure on both home and international students before our lives become too much of a stressor. A £3.5 million expansion of the STV’s gym is a welcome investment, but I am certain that if even a fraction of this were invested into our inner health, it would make a world of difference.
This article was amended on the 30th of November 2016 to remove a factually incorrect statistic. bathimpact would like to clarify that the mistake was made by the editorial team and not the author, and we apologies for the misinformation