Culture and isolation cause mental health challenges for international students

by | Jan 30, 2020 | Headlines, News

Abigael Ruto, Senior Reporter

Moving to a foreign country without any support system can be challenging. For Karim Abdul, who moved to Toronto in 2014 to study, he found himself within a sad routine he was not used to in Tanzania.

The practical nursing student had no family and had difficulty blending in and making friends.

On top of classes and assignments, he worked on the weekends and couldn’t find time for himself.

“When I started my program, I was very excited and looked forward to enjoying a new part of the world but it slowly changed,” he said. 

Abdul said he became more aloof, smiled less, ate less and that his heart felt heavy often.

He couldn’t admit it but he was slipping into depression. Abdul’s isolation was intensified because as an African, talking and acknowledging mental illness is a taboo and he tried to convince himself that he was not suffering.

Sixty-five per cent of post-secondary students reported feeling overwhelmed and anxious, while 46 per cent reported being too depressed to function, according to a 2016 study of Ontario post-secondary students.

Statistics Canada reports there is an average of 10 deaths in Canada caused by suicide every day, with men and boys at higher risk.

Mental illness is non-discriminatory and affects one in every five Canadians yearly.

Many organizations have an organized system that supports people with mental illnesses but knowing whether they help individuals remains a challenge.

Abdul was good at soccer and played it to decompress but with a tight schedule, he eventually abandoned the sport.

“I wish I left my weekends free but my poor financial status didn’t allow me not to work,” he said. “I had to pay bills and rent.”

Abdul did not realize he was slipping away until one day he had a slight headache. He popped a pill but then felt the urge to swallow the whole prescription of tablets.

The desire stayed with him for several days and he cried all the time.

By this time, Abdul was in his second semester and grades were suffering.

He had hit rock bottom, although he managed to smile every time his parents called.

“I decided I would not attend lectures anymore since I did not see the need for it,” Abdul said.

He stayed in his room for the whole week until his boss called to find out if he was going in for his shift. He quickly found an excuse and stayed in.

He headed to his department to inquire if he could drop from the semester when he saw a poster on an event happening in school about mental health.

“Every symptom they described I had,” Abdul said while attending the event.

He decided it was time he talked to someone.

Excaene Francis, a paralegal student at Humber, recognizes workshops as important for finding one that suits your needs.

For international students, it is important to attend them and create a network both professionally and socially, she said.

“It is good that someone in the Canadian industry talks to them and helps them blend in,” she said.

Francis suggests newcomers should not isolate themselves to have a healthy stay and prevent mental breakdowns.

Abdul learned he was able to open up to a counsellor after he became aware of his situation. His counsellor helped him overcome his situation. Today, he is a proud practicing nurse in Rwanda.