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Abroad and Abnormal: The Mental Health Issues Faced By the International Students

Introduction

A documentary video narrated by an international student from the University of Missouri.

Statistics

According to the International Student Site and the Open Doors 2019 Report, The USA has the world’s largest international student population. Over a million students are choosing to study in the USA to broaden their education and life experiences. The international students make up about 5% of all students enrolled in higher-level education in the USA. The data continues to increase every year. 

We are used to see many international students coming from different countries to go to college in the United States. However, it had become a trend for Chinese students to start studying abroad since high school. Private high schools became the top choice for students who are planning to attend U.S. colleges.

 

What is the problem?

I am one of the Chinese students who chose to attend U.S. high schools. I decided to study abroad to get a higher chance of getting into the colleges I like and be more adapted to the life ad culture in America. I am confident to say that most of the international students in my school share this motivation. I am currently studying at Hamden Hall Country Day School, a private prep school in Hamden, Connecticut. It is fair to say that the international community at my school is a very loving and supportive group. The group is nonnegligible since it makes up about 10% of the upper school students. Each class at my school has an average of 12 students, and about 2~4 are Chinese. 

However, being away from home at such a young age is challenging and may lead to severe problems. International students, especially adolescents are facing high rates of mental health concerns.

Essential Question:

What can we do to lower mental health issues for international high school students?

The Issues

Three international students are able to share their experiences:

“I chose to study abroad in order to be closer to my dream school. Under the influence of my elder brother, who is a design-majored student in New York, I had a passion for art since a young age. My family believes coming to the United States earlier will allow me to be better suited for the culture and language. However, “I chose to study abroad to be closer to my dream school. Under the influence of my elder brother, who is a design-majored student in New York, I had a passion for art from a young age. My family believes coming to the United States earlier will allow me to be better suited for the culture and language. However, I had always been an introverted and quiet person. Reaching out to talk to people is a pretty difficult task for me. Few weeks after school starts, I found myself surrounded by other Chinese students, and I barely get the chance to speak English in days. I was ashamed for always staying in my comfort zone, but it was too difficult for me to walk by a U.S. student and start a conversation. It is even more challenging for me to participate voluntarily in class because sometimes, I could not fully express my idea in English. Most of my friends around me are getting good grades and GPAs while I was struggling with the directing (acting) course I chose by accident… There was a phase when I was so stressed and depressed that I constantly thought about ending my life. I didn’t want my family to find out, so I could only share part of my emotions with my close friends. I know I have to stay positive, but sometimes it is just too difficult…”
––––– Y. Liu, Class of 2022

“The main reason I chose to come to the U.S. is that I wanted to leave my family and start an adventure on my own. I have been a pretty active student since my freshman year. Some Chinese students asked if I am an American Born Chinese because to them, I look like an “overachiever.” I earned the highest GPA in the whole junior class last year, and I am engaged in many activities. I am a player in the school varsity basketball team, captain of the math team, and I am the first Chinese student body president in my school. I feel no pressure when hanging out with the native students and chatting with the teachers. Somehow this bothered many international students that they started accusing me of “not patriotic” and excluding me in their groups. The application season ended recently. My parents, teachers, friends, and even myself assumed that I would end up in an Ivy League college. However, I got rejected to all the Ivy’s I applied in Early Action, and only got in the ones I considered “safe choices.” Seeing the other students who I used to look down to get into better schools was a painful experience. It made me doubt if the hard work I’ve given in the past years was useless. I felt ashamed when people ask me what schools I got in to. The pressure from my parents was only worse. It made me go back to the days when they starved me for getting a 69 on a test in middle school. Fortunately, I got accepted to a great school in CA, which gave me the motivation to keep going. However, sometimes I still wonder what the purpose of working so hard is.”
––– Tony Z., Class of 2020

“Social anxieties, depression, eating disorders… They all happened to me. I had the experience of studying in the U.S. in elementary school. Then I was determined to return here for college eventually. I realized I was tired of the education system in China, so I decided attending high school in the U.S. will be a good idea. My family was very supportive, and I was confident. I knew that I would fit in perfectly.
Two months after school began, I had to face reality. I am not familiar with the programs we use in class. I sometimes have an accent. It became more and more challenging for me to reach out to people and speak my feelings. I was not able to share my emotions with my family on time. I began to care more about how I look under peer pressure. A group of Chinese girls started the trend of skipping lunch for losing weight, and I followed. Now I realized my lack of will for eating was signs of anorexia.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I found myself shivering each time when I had to speak in front of the class. I could not express myself when I had to talk to someone I was unfamiliar with, which happened to be most of the local U.S. students.
Every morning when I found myself still alive, I will say, “Alright, this is going to be a fresh start.” But every day ended up the same.”
––– Y. Q., Class of 2022

As we can tell from their experiences, they all went, or are going through some mental health issues more or less.

Possible Causes

There are several insights to the reason why international students are exposed to a high rate of mental health issues.

Stress

International students will have stress for various reasons. The stress of language, the stress of adjusting, and most importantly, the stress of academics. International students tend to be more effected by the academic pressure comparing to the native U.S. students. Specifically, many international students come from schools that have vastly different schooling norms from the ones that they encounter in American universities and adjusting to the unfamiliar environment and practices can be quite stressful.

Cultural Differences

To most high school international students, studying in the U.S. means they will have to be genuinely independent. They will have to live in dorms or stay with host families. The host families are not always easy to get along with. In fact, we will think a student is lucky if he/she got to stay with a host family that makes breakfast. These cultral differeces are difficult to adjust to for most students. 

“Most of the international students have come to my office for mental health issues that are commonly seen with adolescents, specifically, adolescents in a highly competitive private school setting. For example, worry or concern regarding grades and college admissions. However, a few international students have come to my office related to issues that are specific to their status as international students, including feelings of sadness from being away from their families.”

Dr. Thomas Fahy, school counselor

https://images.app.goo.gl/Hod2Cb5F3CCwD7Vu5

The Stigma of Seeking Help

However, not all students seek professionals for help. 

The school counselor, Dr. Thomas Fahy offers support to all the faculties and students on campus who are in needs. I have had several sessions for him in the past for my anxiety issues. He had given quite a few speeches about mental health during school assemblies, so it is fair to say that he is a “well-known resource” to many students. However, when I mentioned my sessions with him to some of my Chinese friends, they showed limited knowledge of him. 

According to an article from the ACA Knowlege Center, “A report on a mental health survey of 130 MCIS at Yale University showed that 45% of participants reported symptoms of depression, and 29% reported symptoms of anxiety, but only 4% of participants reported utilization of on campus mental health counseling services. “

 

What Can We Do To Help?

(Applicable to both students and faculties at school)

1. Notice

Look around the international students around you and try to think whether they “changed,” for example, if they started to talk less or to avoid communication.

2. Ask

When you feel concerned over certain students, reach out to them nicely. Let them know that you mean well and are worried about them. However, be sure to be patient and respect their privacy.

3. Guidance and Support

This step may be challenging if you are not a professional at psychology or do not hold much information about psychology. However, you can always tell them, “Don’t worry, I am here for you,” and suggest they have a brief conversation with professionals. Be sure to put it suggestively, so they are not frightened. For example, “Have you heard about our school counselor? I (or a friend of mine) had chatted with him/her before and thought the conversation was constructive. It is always good to have someone listening to your problems.”

These actions may seem very simple, yet it can be highly influential to someone’s life. 

You can also visit the following websites to learn more about how to be supportive of your friends:

https://counseling.oregonstate.edu/main/encouraging-your-student-seek-help

https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/high-school-notes/2015/02/02/3-ways-high-school-counselors-can-help-students-parents

https://www.schoolcounselor.org/school-counselors/professional-development/learn-more/helping-students-troubling-times

If you have any insights into the problem or have any stories with an international student around you, please share them in the comments.

Works Cited

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1guDszr8I2Q12Au2OFFygk50CEse_E4umOvRioiRMyuw/edit?usp=sharing

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COMMENTS: 10
  1. April 23, 2020 by Kimberly Porto

    Carolyn,
    Thank you for presenting such an important viewpoint of what it is like to be an international high school student. I will put into place some of your suggestions about what we can do in our school.
    Great work!
    Mrs. Porto

    • April 26, 2020 by Yifei Qin

      Thank you, Mrs. Porto! I am glad some of my suggestions help!

  2. April 24, 2020 by Owen

    I think that this is a very interesting presentation. As someone who goes to a school with a lot of international students, it is very interesting to have this insight on what is it to be an international student.

    • April 26, 2020 by Yifei Qin

      Thanks. I am glad to introduce the perspective of international students!

  3. April 24, 2020 by Laura

    As an international student who goes to a private high school, I find many of the situations you presented quite relatable. Furthermore, I was very happy to find out how others also felt which I was not able to because there aren’t any other international students at my school. Your presentation is great!

    • April 26, 2020 by Yifei Qin

      Hi Laura,
      I am sorry for how you found some of the issues relatable and that you are the only international student at your school. Please keep in mind that you are never alone, and feel free to reach out to professionals if you feel like you needed guidance. We’ll always be on your side!

  4. April 24, 2020 by Jadyn

    [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “Pending Moderation”. Reason: Whoops. Google reCAPTCHA was not submitted. *]
    Carolyn, I think that your idea is really interesting. It’s sad to think that so many international students are struggling mentally and are facing challenges. I do find it cool though that so much of your student population is international because at my school 1-2 students come internationally and it’s only for junior year, and I would love to have more of them at my school. Your presentation helped provide me with a lot of new information so thank you for teaching me about something new!

    • April 26, 2020 by Yifei Qin

      Hi Jayden,
      I am glad that you were able to find out something new about international students. I am also excited to see that you are getting along with the international students at your school!

  5. April 24, 2020 by Grace

    This is such an interesting topic and is really not something I thought of before. I think you made such good points as to how being away from home
    at such a young age in a new culture could result in challenges that are overlooked by the general United States population. Most high school students in the U.S don’t study abroad until later in life so I see how international students could feel a little isolated from their peers. My school does host 2-4 international students every year and I really enjoy getting to learn about them and their home countries!

    • April 26, 2020 by Yifei Qin

      Hi Grace,
      I believe having a few international students from other countries is always nice! The majority of the foreign students at my school come from China, and we welcome 1-2 foreign exchange students from other countries(France, Turkey, Italy…) every year. It is always fun to talk about different cultures!

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