Risk Factors

Many factors influence a person’s risk of developing mental health issues. Some factors are particular to international students such as cultural identity and culture shock, while others, such as sexual orientation and grief are factors that are common to all students.

Factors that may predispose international students to mental illness are:

Cultural Identity

Cultural identity is the sense of belonging to a group, and can be related to nationality, ethnicity, race, ancestry, gender and religion. Living in a different culture and following two different sets of rules may make it difficult for students to make sense of their cultural identity.

A student may feel embarrassed for behaving the wrong way. The fear of being disciplined or laughed at causes stress, which can lead to anxiety disorders or depression. Students who are struggling to fit into their new life or showing signs of rejecting elements of their culture may need support.

Resources: Common Ground

Culture Shock

Culture shock is usually mild and temporary, but some students experience debilitating symptoms that can lead to mental illnesses such as depression. The reasons for culture shock include sensory overload, living in contradictory cultures, language difficulties, isolation and the struggle to fit in to school. Culture shock mimics symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Resources: UK Council for International Student Affairs, The highs and lows of a cultural transition (study)

Culture shock resource for students: Link to downloadable PDF

Grief

Many situations in life can cause grief, including living and studying away from home in a different culture without familiar support networks. Emotional reactions to grief can include sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt and despair.  

Resources: Mental Health Foundation

Academic Pressure

Academic pressure may be a strong risk factor for mental illness in international students. It’s important to understand the demands placed on students to achieve academically, and the impact academic success could have on them, their families and their future opportunities in life (read more about academic pressure).

Sexual Orientation

The pressures of feeling expected to conform to gender norms can be very isolating for students struggling with their sexual identity. Fearing rejection and feeling unsupported by friends and family can contribute to stress, anxiety and depression.

How to support students

  • Be open, honest and non-judgemental
  • Keep conversations private and uninterrupted
  • Let the student tell you how they are feeling and what they have been going through
  • Don’t treat them differently
  • Don’t use humour to diffuse the situation
  • Respect the student’s privacy: don’t ask them about their intimate experiences, and don’t tell others without the student’s permission
  • Don’t appear shocked or say you already knew about their sexual orientation
  • Tell them the accepted terminology around their sexual orientation
  • Help the student find resources and support from services if needed

Resources: Common Ground

Gender Identity

Gender identity is not the same as sexual identity. Many people are confused about the difference between gender and sex. Gender refers to the gender a person identifies with, while sex usually refers to the sex they were assigned at birth.

Resources: Common Ground

Drug and Alcohol Use

While it’s normal for teenagers to want to try new things, ongoing drug or alcohol use may suggest a student has underlying issues. If you are aware that a student is experimenting with drugs or abusing alcohol, it is important to have an open conversation with them.

Resources: Mental Health Foundation

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