The Turn in the Stomach | First Year offshore in University
Updated: Aug 20
Is it the first time that you and your child are living in different countries? Nov has arrived, and so have your feelings. Along with the hope and joy, you also cannot help feeling worried, anxious about whether your child will adapt to new customs, languages, and food, which is really scary.
Mainland Chinese students represent the largest body of international students in the US. Your concern is not absolutely unnecessary. According to a Yale study3, out of these students who are studying in the US, 45% of them have reported having feelings of depression and 29% have reported having feelings of anxiety. This means that at least 1 out of ever 2 Mainland Chinese students will face emotional issues while they study abroad. This is troubling since only around 13% of the general population in universities report feelings of anxiety or depression (there were no numbers within the international student population). In fact, as a Chinese international student, your child is less likely to seek out counseling or support groups than their European counterparts. In the US, about 11%, or 1 out of every 10 students utilized counseling services in 2014, but only 4%, or one out of 25 of Chinese international student sought out these services.
I asked my friend about her experiences at SUNY at Buffalo for the article. When recalling her experience as a student abroad, Helen (English name) easily admits that she struggled with depression. In fact, she said that she spent the first two years of university feeling homesick and depressed. She cites the stresses of being apart from her parents and friends, as well as the social norms of living in the United States as some of the causes for her depression. She is in the minority, as she actively sought out the counseling that her university offered. In fact, Helen was able to see a counselor who spoke Mandarin and who she felt really understood what she was going through. Through this experience, Helen actually went on to study psychology and she says that her experience was so positive that she actually thinks that it is the reason she was able to turn her experience of struggling with depression into a positive one where she learned to speak about her emotions and process them in a positive way.
My co-worker, Peggy (English name) expressed similar feelings as Helen when I asked her to describe her experiences studying at York, in the U.K. She said that she felt incredibly lonely and helpless being alone in a new country, and said that she felt there was nothing she could do. She even spoke of times where she was screamed at on the street to go home to her own country, or when a little girl screamed at her to get out of the way. She spoke to her parents and friends and home, but did not want to worry them with her struggles, and opted to only tell them about the positive highlights of her life abroad. As parents, it is important to hear both Helen’s and Peggy’s story, because although they have similarities, there are stark differences. I asked Peggy why she never sought out counselling and she said it was too expensive and that her problems were not that serious. She was unaware that most universities offer free sessions to students. Even if she did know, she still feels that her problems were not worthy of seeking help.
Feelings of depression, or anxiety are often caused by challenges life presents. In milestones like first year in college in a foreign country, the challenges are enormous to most teenagers. To support them, the first step is to be aware of the challenges that they might face, and to be aware of the resources that will be available to them. Gaining an understanding of the factors that lead to mental health problems, as well as understanding the cultural obstacles that Chinese students face is key to bridging the gap between suffering from mental health problems and seeking the help that is available to them. It is easy to outweigh academic achievements over mental health, but both are equally important. As a parent, you can look for warning signs of depression, such as lack of energy, expressing feelings of sadness, avoiding socializing with friends, and even being over critical of themselves. You know your child, so if you notice large behavioral changes, it is important to create a safe and supportive space and communicate to them about their emotional well-being.
If you are afraid that your child is suffering from depression or anxiety, it is important to remember that they are not alone, and that there are resources available! Every year since 2015, we provide Chinese high school graduates workshops to prepare them for the transition into American universities. We provide workshops for their parents to ensure that the concerned parents are equipped with knowledge to deal with possible turbulence their children face living on their own for the first time. Although there may not be the exposure to counseling that there is in the US4, it is important to understand the importance of counseling. Many of the mainland Chinese international students have reported having less experience with counseling and report more discomfort and shame regarding counseling than their US cohort4. In fact, there is an astronomical shortage of well-trained therapists in China, so therapy is not viewed as an option for a majority of students1. In the US, students face a variety of obstacles, including homesickness, loneliness and social isolation, identity confusion, discrimination and prejudice, culture shock, and stress due to changes.
These are huge changes that are happening to your child, and encouraging them to manage their emotions early may be key for maintaining their mental health. Although mainland Chinese international student have reported positive attitudes towards seeking mental health counseling, they tend to seek support from friends, family, or religious leaders4. Researchers have also found that students who believed that they were able to resolve their emotional distress by themselves are more likely to have depressive symptoms, while being less likely to seek professional help4. In fact, researchers found that Asian international students are more likely to underutilize counseling services more than any other ethnic/cultural group in the US, even though they experience high rates of anxiety and depression. By knowing these facts, you can encourage your child to seek the professional care that is available to them.
There is a silver lining to these issues. A literature review of the mental health of international Chinese students proposes three approaches based on the unique needs of mainland Chinese international students4. These include intentional outreach, peer-to-peer counseling, and support groups. There are several types of outreach activities that could be helpful for students who are studying abroad. Universities should take advantages of the adjustment period upon arrival. This includes creating bilingual handouts to ease the language burden, the use of culture-centered intentional interactions, and the recruitment of other mainland Chinese students who could serve as liaisons to the counseling staff4.
For students who are studying abroad and feeling overwhelmed by their new environment, it is important to recognize that they are not alone. Peer-to-peer counseling can take many forms. It could be something as simple as reaching out to other Chinese international students, they are likely feeling similar feelings of culture shock, loneliness, and stress1. Encouraging your child to learn and to be open to share their experiences is not only helpful for their experience, but can be helpful to their cohort as well. Peers can be invaluable while adjusting to new cultures, as they are often experiencing similar feelings and stresses. For students that are preparing to go overseas, there are steps that they can take to make a smoother transition. Your child can research clubs or organizations that are providing “buddies” or older students who have faced similar obstacles as them. Encourage them to reach out to the international Chinese community. There are plenty of options through universities, student associations, and often times even Facebook groups. Creating a support system is invaluable for children that are separated from all that is familiar. Also, help your child to avoid homesickness. Save the student (www.savethestudent.com) has a helpful list for avoiding homesickness, the number one hint being be kind to yourself. Remember, it is normal for your child to feel overwhelmed. They are adjusting to a new culture, a new country, a new schedule, and for many, a new language. Although it might be difficult for them to reach out to professionals when they are experiencing anxiety or depression, there are anonymous resources like Student Minds who offer support. Additionally, there are resources at https://www.candlex.cn/ that can help you with various mental health issues, including bi-polar, depression, and various support groups.