Depression At University: Feeling Alone And How To Cope When Studying Abroad

Next time you’re in a packed lecture hall, look around you. As many as three-quarters of your classmates will have felt down at some point in the last year.

University can be difficult. For international students, the extra obstacles that come with adjusting to life in a new country, often in a new language, can heighten feelings of homesickness, sadness or depression.

A recent study found that 78% of students admitted to experiencing mental health problems over the past 12 months. The research, conducted by the National Union of Students in the UK, surveyed 1,093 university students and revealed that 33% of them have had suicidal thoughts. Across the Atlantic, a study by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University in the US found that between 2009 and 2015, there was an increase in students reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Moving away from home and starting university is challenging. While lots of students thrive in the new environment and cope well throughout their time at college, others can feel overwhelmed by the experience. Neither reaction is wrong.

Taking The First Steps

Depression at University_First Steps

Often, going to university is the first time many young people leave home and spend large amounts of time away from their family. They have to become totally self-sufficient when it comes to eating well and getting to class on time, while at the same time managing a large workload, making new friends and carving out a life in a new city, or maybe even a new country.

Feeling down, anxious, homesick, depressed or stressed might be your body’s reaction to these new pressures. Jeremy Christey, Chair of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy Universities & Colleges, explains that depression is characterised by a sense of loss. “It might be loss of pleasure, control, mastery or even a loss of engagement with day-to-day life,” he says. “If you don’t feel engaged with your new class or community, or if you feel like you’re not as good at your work in university as you were in school, it might start to affect you.”

Christey, who is also a counsellor at the University of Sussex and the Director of Students Against Depression, advises that “being in touch with your [own] friends, making new friends at university, getting involved and connecting with people” is a really important part of dealing with depression at university.

Advice From Older Students

But for international students, the feeling of isolation may be even more acute. Relocating to a brand new country, trying to adjust to a different culture and perhaps studying in another language presents a different set of challenges.

For one Chinese student, who is studying a master’s in Human Resource Management at LSE, the language barrier is one of the biggest hurdles she’s had to overcome since she arrived in the UK last September.

“English is not my first language – we don’t speak it very often in China – so I usually have difficulty in communicating in English and sometimes it gets me down,” she says. “I really want to make friends, not only with Chinese people but also with students from other countries.”

Amber Zhang, a second-year Chemistry with Management Studies student at UCL, has been in the UK for four years. She has found that the best way to surmount the obstacles that international students face with making new friends is to get involved more, despite any fears or anxieties you might have.

“My advice is to participate in as many activities as you can,” she says. “At first, you might be scared or not able to express yourself well, but as time goes by and you continue to do similar things, you’ll get more confident and you’ll meet a lot of people from different places.”

Zhang explains how doing part-time jobs has helped her feel more at home in her local community, saying that it helped to broaden her perspective and allowed her the opportunity to meet a number of interesting people. “I’m no longer in a small world,” she says. “As soon as I talked to more people, I knew there were so many more things I could do to make myself feel better.”

Speak Up, Talk To Friends, Feel Better

Depression at University_Happy People

The NUS survey also found that 54% of the students who admitted to having a mental health issue did not seek any help or support from their university. Universities across the world have readily available counselling services for all students, but Christey maintains that the typical ‘Western’ method of counselling and therapy may not be suitable for international students. “There’s a systemic need to understand the different international cultures in order to offer the best support,” he argues.

For Gloria Jin, a master’s student at the University of York, attending a therapy session wouldn’t be something she would consider if she felt down at college. “We don’t have that in our culture in Shanghai, so I’ve never tried it before. I would prefer to talk to friends or write diaries,” she explains.

Whatever background you come from, you shouldn’t underestimate the power of talking to friends and peers. As Amber points out, “everyone’s got their own issues. Students no longer hang out in large groups like they might have at school; people are just strangers to each other at first.” So you have to create the opportunities to form bonds with your classmates, with people from different countries, to make new friends.

How To Cope And Be Happy

Throughout your degree or study abroad experience, you’ll go through lots of emotions – good and bad. Remember that it’s normal to get homesick, and that you won’t be the only one to feel down or depressed every now and again.

You need to be kind to yourself when you arrive. Give yourself the chance to make new friends and allow some time to settle into your new life. Be brave! Take yourself out of your comfort zone by organising social events with classmates, meeting as many people as possible, and getting involved with lots of extracurricular activities on and off campus. And if you ever feel down, talk to your peers or a counsellor.

University can be difficult, but it can also be amazing. Look up from your books and enjoy every minute.

Important! If you have been feeling unhappy for longer than a few days, or it’s starting to affect your studies, then you should go and see a doctor straight away. They will be welcoming and helpful. Look on your university’s website for details on how to make an appointment.