Acknowledging mental health concerns among international students

Are You Lost Too: Iqra Rahmat, 21, feels bewildered among the crowd at SAIT in Calgary on Jan. 24. Rahmat is an international student who struggled with anxiety upon arriving in Canada. (Photo by Spardha Mehta/The Press)

Arriving at a new university can be intimidating for any student, but it can be even more taxing for international students.

Whether it is adapting to a new culture, overcoming language barriers, or learning how to cook for themselves for the very first time, the process can be an overwhelming one.

When dealing with mental health concerns among international students, what’s most important for Ricardo Avelar, a certified counsellor at SAIT, is to understand what the student’s experience with mental health has been.

“How they view mental health is very important,” said Avelar. “If their culture has a lot of stigma around mental health, then it will impact the way I’m going to talk about mental health.”

Research shows that international students tend to reach out for help with mental health issues at a much lower rate than their Canadian peers.

According to Avelar, the lower rate could be because, for most international students their experience with the concept of mental health is something that isn’t much talked about.

“For them, it’s mostly something that people just figure out and then deal on their own with,” he said.

Vincent Morga is an international student from the Philippines studying Chemical Engineering Technology at SAIT.

“Nobody is prioritizing mental health in my country, but in Canada I feel it’s much better,” said Morga.

Morga’s classmate and friend, Arth Limbachiya, an international student from India, feels the same.

According to Limbachiya, in his country people are in constant competition so talking to others about mental health concerns is difficult. There is a lot of judgement passed at the person trying to discuss their problem.

“Here, I can just go to my friend, and talk without fearing that I will be judged,” said Limbachiya.

Students have to cope with the demands of cultural adjustment and of a new academic environment, which leads to culture shock among most of them.

Culture shock does not only include the anxiety produced when one moves to a new environment, but it includes physical and emotional distress too. Most of all, it is the unfamiliarity with normal customs.

Many times, international students come from countries where there are different rules.

“Even things like going to the bank can become difficult,” said Avelar. “Because the way they access money or the way that the bank worked in one country may not be the way that it works here.”

Help’s Right Here: Ricardo Avelar poses at the Student Development and Counselling Centre at SAIT in Calgary on Jan. 23. Avelar is a certified counsellor at SAIT. (Photo by Spardha Mehta/The Press)

“The basic things that Canadians take for granted are learning process[es] for international students,” he said.

Iqra Rahmat, 21, who came to Canada as an international student, feels that there isn’t any positive conversation about mental health in her country. Rahmat is from Pakistan and has been living in Calgary for a few years.

“Mental health is equal to nothing back home. It is disgraced with [people’s] rude opinions on how people are just pretending to be suffering mentally,” she said.

We are just told to be strong but are never offered counselling or therapy.”

In Pakistan, remaining strong was the only option, and faith was the only therapy she had.

“For a while, I felt like an outcast until I found similar people to blend in with, who helped me feel okay to be someone different,” said Rahmat.

Seeking counselling felt uncomfortable to her at first, but with time Rahmat has become comfortable in revealing her vulnerable side.

“I realized I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, which also helped me because I wasn’t alone in this,” she said.

There are various adjustments and stresses that are encountered by international students when they are transitioning to a new life in a new country.

These include language barriers and the perception of discrimination.

“In [the] Philippines, when you say something wrong in English, everyone starts laughing at you,” said Morga.

“But here they keep correcting you instead, which is so helpful,” he said.

The school offers a supportive and comforting environment, which can help students feel less stressed.

Some students also find it difficult talking to a counsellor because of the language constraint. At SAIT there is a resource called Seven Cups, which is available in 20 different languages.

“It’s not necessarily a counsellor, but you can talk about things that you are going through with other people in similar situations, which is huge too,” said Ricardo Avelar.

Self-care and self-acceptance

Understanding the notion on self-care and self-acceptance, when facing hard times, is another hardship that international students may face.

Avelar emphasizes the importance of self-care and self-acceptance.

“In our Canadian culture, sometimes we look at self-care as getting a massage, or going on a vacation, or something that is a luxury,” said Avelar. “But the reality is that a lot of self-care is boring.”

For Avelar, self-care is all about the basic things that one needs to do to make sure that they are functioning right.

Brushing your teeth, taking a shower, doing grocery shopping, having enough time to cook and eat, budgeting money, drinking enough water, talking to friends – all these basic day-to-day things are self-care.

On the other hand, the term self-acceptance looks different for different people.

“For me, self-acceptance is really thinking about being compassionate and kind to yourself,” Avelar explained.

Going further in describing self-acceptance, Avelar talked about how it starts with expectations and not being able to fulfil all of them.

“Analyzing the situation helps us to be kind to ourselves. Just be mindful of everything that you’re juggling,” he said.

For Morga self-acceptance is forgetting about one’s insecurities, while Rahmat says that self-care and self-acceptance go hand in hand.

“It’s hard to maintain self-care when you don’t have self-acceptance,” said Rahmat.

“I think you should know that you are you, and accept the person you are because there’s nobody out there like you.”

Also, Avelar strongly felt that acceptance is all about acknowledging that sometimes you have bad and good days.

Resources on campus

SAIT offers many resources to deal with stress and anxiety, right on campus. Students visiting SAIT’s Counselling Centre do not have to worry about a waitlist.

Another initiative called Make Some Noise (MSN) for Mental Health, created by the Trojan Outreach program in 2015, promotes mental health awareness on the campus for one month each year.

Hurrah! SAIT students promote mental health awareness on campus during the Make Some Noise (MSN) for Mental Health campaign created by the Trojan Outreach Program in Calgary on Jan. 23. For one month each year, 17 institutions across Alberta host on-campus events to increase awareness and promote on-campus resources, while breaking the stigma of mental health. (Photo by Spardha Mehta/The Press)

“One more thing about counselling is that it’s about skill development and about developing as a person,” said Avelar.

“So, it’s not necessarily that something is wrong with you, it means that you want to lean about how to improve yourself, or develop a skill that maybe you know that you need some help with.”