Op-ed: Mental health should not be foreign to international students

Mohammad Lootah, contributor

I was struck in the midst of a conversation I had with a friend about mental health when he chuckled and said, “You know, if we talk about being depressed or having a mental illness back home with the guys, they would laugh, think that we are joking, and tell us to man up, and that’s it.” The point my friend made stuck with me for awhile, then started to haunt me. I knew seeking mental health treatment is morbidly stigmatized, but for some of us international students, depending on your culture and background, the topic of mental health is automatically considered buffoonery, and you will be convinced that it is “all in your head.” For some students studying abroad, cultural tendencies create a new breed of stigma associated with mental health: categorizing it as a personal weakness, distraction from school, a symptom of “unmanliness” or even the “devil’s work.”

The truth is, studying abroad and being thousands of miles away from home is not easy and is packed with challenges including cultural ones. It is a tough journey for international students to navigate through Northeastern’s diverse student body and obstacles testing a person’s mental health are inevitable. According to the Jed Foundation medical director, Victor Schwartz, people between the ages of 18 and 24 are more prone to developing issues such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. Having culturally-programmed stigmas about mental health is bound to negatively impact a student’s well-being both psychologically and physically.

International students who fail to achieve a sense of belonging in a group have a higher chance of feeling alienated, which leads to a boost in levels of stress. Therefore, mental illnesses are bound to be higher among international students. Research conducted by scholars from the University of Akron shows that high levels of stress lead to lower self-esteem and cause individuals to engage in poor health habits which consequently results in a higher risk of developing depression and suicide. Students, especially international ones, would falsely identify mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety as another stressor that comes with studying abroad rather than an illness. Students will then cope with that “stress” through unhealthy habits like heavy substance abuse, binge eating and drinking and other bad habits. As a result, students’ academic performance is often significantly hindered. I have personally seen fellow internationals return home because they neglected their mental illness.

The scary part is that the number of international students seeking professional mental health treatment is significantly lower than domestic students, according to a study in the Journal of American Health. The reason for the lack of treatment may be that international students don’t feel comfortable enough to seek these resources. I spoke with fellow international students who told me they would rather lie about seeing a psychiatrist for a mental health issue than tell the truth about their conditions. This reaction depicts the negative effects of culturally-induced false notions about mental health, resulting in fear of judgment. Having the capability to talk about mental health with friends and receiving support is critical, however, when students fear not being taken seriously, the stigma will only get worse.

I am sure many international students on campus are already aware of the issue and are taking their mental health into consideration, but for those who do not: I invite you to join the conversation. Personal well-being is the first step, and to achieve this you should consistently seek self-care through developing healthy habits that enhance your mental health. Your choice of healthy habits should be personalized to your lifestyle and it is always a good idea to stay active both physically and mentally. The goal is to stay consistent, and not belittle such mental health practices, because they are relevant and do make a difference. Second, if you feel like you need it, seeking therapy should not be overlooked. Blinding our illnesses will only postpone the issue, not solve it. We must normalize treating mental illnesses as we do for physical ones. 

Finally, to make a true impact, we as Northeastern students should join arms to fight the stigma and, more importantly, be a support system for each other. I know students are busy, but it is imperative to find time to encourage and alleviate one another. Taking action to tackle an important social issue that could change the lives of others will not only benefit others, but it will also be rewarding to you, because the secret to maintaining good mental health is being of service to others. I recommend joining a student group called Active Minds, which is dedicated to promoting fighting the stigma surrounding mental health. The student group meets weekly to engage in discussions about mental health and organizes campus-wide events related to mental health, prepares “destress sessions” and fun activities to take a break from the overwhelming schoolwork, and more importantly, inviting new friends to join. Being active on campus by joining the conversation and spreading awareness on this social issue could be one source of attaining fulfillment and purpose – and also a great addition to your list of healthy habits.

Mohammad Lootah is a fourth-year business administration major with a finance concentration.