Solitude and depression from social distancing, isolated stay home alone in COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, anxiety from virus infection, Sad unhappy depressed girl sit alone with virus pathogens

Mental Health, COVID 19 and Studying at University

Kayla is a PhD student from California, who is currently studying towards a doctorate with the Institute of Medieval Study at the University of Leeds. 

As a 25 year old international PhD student, I’m expected not to need the same level of support as an undergraduate. It’s true that, as an international postgrad, we do have more experience of studying in a university setting in a country far from home. However, there are many hidden challenges that international students face – particularly those who have diagnosed mental health problems like me. And these very specific challenges, which have been amplified during the pandemic, are probably things we can work together to address – if only enough people have awareness of them.

I studied for my undergraduate degree in Long Beach, which was just a two-hour journey from where I grew up. As part of my course, I spent five months in the UK and then moved into my Masters study at the University of Nottingham. I’m now part way through my PhD at the University of Leeds – and I’m still trying to get my head around how to access consistent and effective mental health support as an international student.

When I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Depression, PTSD and Panic Disorder. I’m not alone in facing such illnesses as a student, but my experience of accessing treatment, of feeling isolated and of making difficult decisions regarding travel to see family are amplified – as they are for any international student currently studying during the pandemic.

Adding Lockdown Into the Mix

Before lockdown, if something bad happened, I was able to go home for a visit. For example, after a really traumatic breakup, the first thing my mom did was buy me a ticket to fly home. Things are different now, and I haven’t been able to go home since the summer of 2019. I had booked a trip home for April 2020, but obviously, that has come and gone, and I have missed out on two years of milestones including the birth of my first nephew.

The problem is, there are so many things to consider as an international student that others might not realise. If you think lockdown life is confusing and complex, imagine if you have two different sets of government rules to consider.

There was a point in December when I was able to travel legally, just as other students were able to travel to their parents’ homes in the UK. However, given all the uncertainty, I was concerned that if I did travel, and another sudden change to the rules came into force, I’d be stuck in the States and unable to complete my PhD – something I’ve worked towards for many years. Of course, there might have been the possibility of virtual study if I had got stuck, but then you have to factor in the time differences and it would have just been too much of a risk to my work. I also had to consider the fact that different states have different legislation, and I would have had to spend two weeks in a hotel to isolate when I arrived – something that my anxiety disorders would have thrived on!

So, Christmas was spent with my boyfriend and his family in the UK, though I was lucky enough to have several places to go; my friend Lexie in Nottingham offered to host me and so did my friends in Leeds. I am so incredibly grateful that I had somewhere welcoming and friendly to go to. But of course, I missed my family – especially my mom and nephew – enormously.

Pre-lockdown I actually found some comfort in being away from home. The excitement of being able to explore a new country with new friends really distracted me from my anxiety and kept me feeling positive and upbeat. But so many previous coping mechanisms have now been taken away.

Add to this the fact that my usual medication for anxiety isn’t currently available to me (the UK has different rules about which drugs to prescribe for which illnesses) and so I had to adapt to a different kind of medication which doesn’t work in quite the same way.

There is some support available at university, but as a PhD student, we don’t get access to as much help. Plus, as an international student, there are certain support services that we just can’t access. For example, in the States, I’m able to get disability support at the university, whereas in the UK, while my mental health conditions are still classed as a disability, I do not get the same adjustments as a home student. 

I’ve seen so much love and support from my UK friends and fellow students, and I really do appreciate it. But the pandemic has highlighted a few unique challenges that we as international students face, and I think it would be good to reflect on these and consider how we can accommodate for them going forward. After all, universities all around the world thrive off welcoming international students into their community.

image of Kaya university student

How Universities Can Support International Students

Firstly, and I think this is probably a fairly easy one to manage, I think that any international student with a diagnosed mental health problem (or in fact any chronic health problem), whether UG or PG could be offered more consistent university support. The counsellors we have access to are great, but you often have six sessions and then need to re-apply, which leaves you with a gap in support. Even just having someone from student welfare or disability services check in on you during these times would be so helpful and supportive.

I think we need to consider the design of student accommodation. During the pandemic, we haven’t been able to socialise anyway, but going forward, as international students remain on campus over the holidays, it would be great if we had easier ways of connecting with others in our position. I know there are other international students in my building, but I never have the chance to meet them due to the design of our self-contained flats. So more communal spaces and opportunities to bump into each other and make new friends would be hugely helpful.

I’m also on the international student advisory board at Leeds and one of the things we’ve talked about is how we would really benefit from counsellors who understand cultural differences or are able to speak different languages. Perhaps that could be considered in university cities or towns – maybe universities in close proximity could work together on developing such resources? Students have also discussed wanting to pick the gender of their counsellor for personal or religious reasons, which may lengthen their waiting time, but should be an option. 

Finally, we all have Zoom fatigue, but it’s not new. Your international friends have been living with half their life in a box pre-COVID and will continue to do so afterwards. Plus, a lot of us have to factor multiple time zones into our days. Cut us some slack and stop counting down the days until ‘we can all be face-to-face’. For some of us, that is going to take much longer than this summer, and it can be detrimental if we’re reminded when we’re already feeling low. 

Student Space has a wealth of online and telephone support that all higher education students in England and Wales can access – but we need to let as many students as possible know about this – they need to be signposted to know it’s there and what’s on offer.

Everybody is experiencing different challenges during the pandemic, but I feel it would be a wasted opportunity not to highlight some of the specific issues international students face, and suggest ways in which we can respond to them. Universities can be hugely supportive, but they need to know what the problems are in order to address them.

If you are a student who is experiencing mental health difficulties as a result of the pandemic, Student Space is here for you. Student Space provides free, confidential, direct mental health support over webchat, phone, text and email to students in England and Wales, as well as free articles, webinars and mental health resources on the website. Student Space has been developed by Student Minds, the UK’s national student mental health charity.

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