International students face unique mental health stresses

World Today

Recent suicides of two well-known celebrities have brought more attention to helping people that suffer from depression.

The problem is prevalent among all ages, but among international college students, those from China represent a high percentage.

At the University of Missouri, a Chinese international student recovering from her own depression experience, is trying to raise the awareness of mental health issues of people like her.

In early 2017, Hexiang Dong, a Chinese international student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, finally realized that she was undergoing a serious depression.

“When I have problems…I just force myself to deal with it,” Dong said, “but sometimes it’s just beyond my emotion ability.”

Dong was educated to be tough and move on with mental distresses, and she has always been trying. However, after several months of struggling, she recognized that it’s something more than she could handle. She needed professional assistance from a psychologist.

Dong is not alone. In the United States, there are about 350,000 international students from China, the largest number from any single country. 

A study released by Yale University in 2013 shows that about 45 percent of the Chinese international students on its campus reported symptoms of depression.

In comparison, about 14.2 percent of general college students in America report symptoms of depression, according to a 2017 report from National College Health Association. 

“Asian students usually may experience a lot of shame, or do not have a lot of knowledge on the mental health issue,” Phoebe Wan, a counselor at Student Health Center at the University of Missouri, said.

Wan is from Hong Kong and studied in the U.S. Her multicultural background helps Wan to work closely with the Chinese international student group and understand their unique stress.

In addition to language barriers and a focus on academic success, the stigma around mental health also stops Chinese students from addressing the issue with other people, according to Wan’s experience.

“What makes things worse is that even though they are suffering, they are not aware of the resources around them, or are too afraid to reach out to them,” Wan said.

Prompted by this, the University of Missouri-Columbia held a panel on April 20, 2018, to raise the awareness of international students’ mental health and well-being on campus and inform the students of the resources available to them.

“The mental health needs of international students in our country are too frequently not being met,” Craig Rooney, the Behavioral Health Director at MU Student Health Center, said at the panel.

Like the University of Missouri, institutions across the U.S. are coming to realize that this issue needs to be addressed with more effort.

Popular practices include hiring bilingual counselors, who understand the students’ better and pairing up new international students with current students to help them build a new support system on campus.

As the institutions are moving forward, educators still face difficulties such as limited budget and resources.

Since the University of Missouri is facing a financial hardship that affects most departments, Wan has to come up with creative ways to get students involved, such as organizing support groups on WeChat, the most popular social media app for Chinese students.

“We can only try to show up as frequently as possible in their life, so that they’d know when things happen, there’s always someone they can turn to,” Wan said.

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1‑800‑273‑TALK (8255). Trained crisis workers are available to talk – and listen – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.