International students face unique struggles when they need mental health services.
By Nirakar Poudel
A year and a half into graduate school, I became depressed. I had adapted quite well to American culture following the culture shock of moving to the United States from Nepal in 2008 for my undergraduate studies. A strong supportive atmosphere created by the Colby College administration, a robust international student body, and the community of physics students expedited my social and academic adaptation. Similar support structures assisted me in making another easy transition to engineering school at Dartmouth College as part of a dual-degree program. Although I come from a culture that attaches a stigma to mental illness, the environment of Colby and Dartmouth helped me feel comfortable talking about my own problems. I knew I could always seek therapy, but I never needed it.
When I joined a Ph.D. program, I had to adjust again to new academic and social terrain. The ratio of domestic to international students had flipped from roughly 80/20 on my undergraduate campus to 10/90 in graduate school. Constant failure in research, as well as isolation, anxiety, and disengagement, started to take a toll on my mental health. I contemplated dropping out and moving home, but a devastating earthquake had hit my country earlier that year and I didn’t feel that I could burden my family by quitting. I soon discovered that conversation about mental health issues in the graduate student body—at least within my program—was virtually nonexistent, which was quite stifling. Because of the knowledge of American higher education I had acquired as an undergraduate student, however, I was able to use the resources provided by the university to seek therapy and help from my academic adviser to improve my mental health. I actively participated in many discussions related to student wellness on campus and decided to get involved with campus leadership to help other international graduate students struggling with mental illness.
Over two semesters of involvement, I have gained important insight into factors that affect international students’ mental well-being. My university invests quite a lot in graduate students’ well-being, including awareness programs about mental health issues. However, based on my experience, the number of international students actually using these resources is quite low. Many international students come from cultures where mental illness is still stigmatized and quite often tend to dismiss these issues as weakness in character or a result of personal shortcomings. I have found that such views are so deeply ingrained that people are often scared to acknowledge any difficulties that they are facing. Moreover, many international students tend to stay within a segregated bubble of their own nationalities. In such a group dynamic, the perception and stigma coming from the home culture are still dominant. Therefore, individuals within such groups are reluctant to be open about their inner struggles.
I believe that more struggling students would seek counseling services if they could see a therapist to whom they could relate. Such a counselor could connect with international students better and possibly help students break their preconceived notions. For example, I recently organized a mindful meditation workshop for my student organization. One of my Indian Ph.D.-candidate friends spoke about his experiences with wellness. Many participants reached out to us later, asking for ways they could get help to improve their overall well-being.
Although most institutions do a lot to provide top-down approaches, like awareness campaigns, to help international students adjust to life on U.S. campuses, I believe that this by itself is often ineffective. Institutions can significantly improve international students’ well-being by addressing the issue through a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches. Instead of only providing students with information about the available services, institutions can strategically create programs to change certain students’ perceptions within their peer groups about mental health. This, in the end, will create better engineers and engineering educators.
Nirakar Poudel is a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California.