Common Mental Health Conditions

Isolation, loneliness, language barriers, adjusting to a new culture and being away from support networks may put international students at risk of suffering from mental health conditions.

Culture shock can mimic the symptoms of anxiety, but can also develop into a more serious mental health issue (read more about culture shock).

The normal physiological and social pressures associated with moving into adolescence can also add to the stress that international students face.

These are among the common mental health conditions that may be experienced by some international students.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety is a normal response to a threat or fear, such as feeling stressed before an exam. While mild anxiety can be unsettling, it doesn’t usually last long.

However, if feelings of worry, nervousness, apprehension or fear become so overwhelming that they impact on a student’s day-to-day life, this is classified as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD is the most common form of mental illness experienced by international students.

If a student’s reaction to stress is out of proportion to what might be normally expected in a situation, medical intervention may be necessary.

GAD may impact on the way someone thinks, but people experiencing anxiety may also suffer from somatic symptoms (physical symptoms caused by mental factors). Somatic symptoms are often the main reason international students seek medical help.

Students with GAD may display completely different symptoms. One may be sad and withdrawn, while another may be vocal, aggressive and irritable.

Signs to look for include:

  • feeling irritable or restless
  • confusion, or problems with concentration or memory
  • feeling worthless, unmotivated or lethargic
  • changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • excessive worrying, or a sense of ‘doom and gloom’
  • somatic symptoms, such as recurring headaches or stomach aches
  • withdrawing; no longer enjoying spending time with friends, or staying in their room more often than usual
  • falling school attendance and academic grades
  • extreme mood swings, anger; being quick to lash out
  • feeling nervous, scared or unable to relax
  • becoming dependent on alcohol, drugs or gambling.

Resources: Mental Health Foundation

Stress and anxiety resource for students: Link to downloadable PDF

Anxiety-related disorders

Panic attacks

Students with anxiety may have periods of extreme anxiety, or panic attacks. The symptoms are similar to a heart attack. If a student has a panic attack more than once a month, and the attacks start to impact on their daily lives, they may have panic disorder. Seek urgent medical help if you’re not sure whether a student is having a panic attack or a heart attack.

Signs to look for include:

  • palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • tight chest
  • excessive sweating
  • trembling or shaking.

Resources: Mental Health Foundation

Stress and anxiety resource for students: Link to downloadable PDF


Phobias

Agoraphobia is the fear of being somewhere that could be difficult or embarrassing to escape from. It can cause a panic attack. Social phobia is fear of being embarrassed in social situations, which can cause students to avoid social interactions. School phobia is a sudden aversion to going to school.

Resources: Mental Health Foundation


Obsessive compulsive disorder

Students with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) have unrelenting and unwelcome thoughts, as well as the urgent need to perform actions such as washing their hands or repetitively arranging objects. They are at greater risk of developing other anxiety disorders or depression.

Resources: Mental Health Foundation

 

Depression

A student who has a low mood for several weeks may be suffering from depression. Depression can have different symptoms, but don’t ignore any changes you see in a student’s mood, behaviour or energy levels. Depression causes many of the same symptoms as anxiety.

Other signs to look for include:

  • feeling persistently sad or irritable
  • feeling extremely tired, or having no energy
  • frequently thinking of death
  • moving slowly, or being agitated or unable to settle
  • losing interest in physical appearance
  • taking risks.

Resources: Mental Health Foundation, Southern Cross

Depression resource for students: Link to downloadable PDF

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are extremely damaging and can be life-threatening. There is usually an underlying emotional factor to eating disorders, which include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and purging. Students may use food to cope with stressful times in their lives, and may equate being thin with self-worth.

Signs to look for include:

  • skipping meals, having tiny portions or hiding uneaten food
  • carefully monitoring food intake
  • exercising obsessively
  • taking diet pills or laxatives
  • constantly talking about weight
  • wearing baggy clothes to hide weight loss.

Resources: EDANZ, Mental Health Foundation

Self-harm

Students who self-harm deliberately hurt themselves but don’t necessarily want to die. It’s a physical demonstration of emotional pain: a way to release pent-up emotions. Self-harm is very common and can become addictive.

As students who self-harm have a higher risk of having suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide, take every self-harm injury seriously. Ask students who self-harm if they are suicidal, and seek professional help if they say they are.

Students may try to hide the signs of self-harm because of the shame and stigma, so watch out for: unexplained injuries; missing hair or eyelashes; alcohol, drugs or medication misuse; and students wearing clothes that don’t suit the conditions, such as being covered up in summer.

Seek medical help if a student’s self-harming interferes with their daily life, if they have serious injuries, if they have taken an overdose or if they have told you they want to die.

Common forms of self-harm include:

  • cutting your wrists, arms or legs
  • cigarette burns
  • pulling out your hair and eyelashes
  • banging your head and punching yourself
  • biting or constant scratching
  • overdosing on prescription or non-prescription drugs
  • inhaling poisonous substances.

Resources: Mental Health Foundation

Suicidal thoughts and feelings

It may not be obvious when a student is suicidal. People who are considering suicide do not always express their feelings or seek help.

While thoughts of suicide are common, they usually pass without being acted upon. If you think a student might be at risk, trust your instincts and ask about suicide – it can save lives.

Always take it seriously if a student expresses thoughts about suicide. Most people who feel suicidal don’t want to die; they no longer want to live with the torment and distress. It may be helpful to seek support from people who are close to the student.

Signs to look for include:

  • symptoms of anxiety and stress
  • telling people you want to die
  • talking, drawing or writing about death or suicide
  • being obsessed with death
  • posting photos or videos about suicide
  • giving away possessions or saying goodbye to friends
  • saying things like, “They would be better off without me,” “If I died now, no-one would care” or “What’s the point. Things are never going to get any better.”

 

If a student has attempted suicide or you believe they are in imminent danger:

  • call 111 or the local mental health crisis team, or take them to the nearest hospital emergency department
  • stay with the student until help arrives
  • keep calm, keep talking and be non-judgemental
  • remove potential means of suicide, such as medication or car keys
  • be aware of your own safety.

Resources: Common Ground

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