Away From Home compiles meaningful little reflection close to the heart of the international student experience.
For international students, studying abroad is a life-changing opportunity — a fantastic way for discovering a new culture and making new friends while earning a university degree. But life isn't all fun and happy times. The trade-off to such a remarkable opportunity is an increased risk of experiencing poor mental health, as reported by a number of studies.
Key drivers of poor mental health vary from homesickness and culture shock, language barriers, to experiences with bullying and racism, financial stress, and academic pressures. An estimate by the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that the incidence of students having depression is 16%, six percent higher than the general population and only one sixth of them received proper help from medical centers. Even worse, international students have been found to be less likely to seek help for mental ill-health than domestic students.
When seeking help, one important but often disregarded way is to communicate what’s on their minds with their loved ones. But sometimes, talking to parents, who are halfway across the globe, about feelings and needs can feel difficult. In Vietnam, a country where collectivistic needs are prioritized over individualistic ones, expressing one’s feelings and struggles is tough for both parents and their children. Mental illness has long been stigmatized and thus, communicating about these issues will become harder than ever.
Mental illness as a "disappointment"
Talking to parents about mental health can be scary for a number of reasons. Christie Nguyen, an undergraduate at Monash University, was among the international students who suffered from academic pressures, which caused her severe stress and anxiety.
“I remember that it was during the final exam period that I found myself really stressed out to the extent that I didn’t want to eat anything,” Christie says, “that was the one and only time when I tried to tell my parents how I felt, and the response I received from them was I am still too young to be feeling stressed, and that stress would only happen when we actually go out to the society and make a living.”
Christie decided to keep her deteriorating mental health under lock and key for one straightforward reason, the fear of disappointing her parents. “When my parents allowed me to study overseas, they had really high expectations that I will have good grades and be a top student. The reality is that I’m not, and I constantly worry that I might fail the unit,” said Christie. “I decided not to tell my parents what I had been through anymore because I was scared that the more I told, the more they would be disappointed realizing that I didn’t live up to their expectations.”
The cultural contexts behind mental health stigma
Christie’s issue highlights an underlying problem of mental-illness-related stigma in Vietnamese society and perhaps, Asia in general. Any Asian person can tell you about the pressures of growing up in many Asian households — the high expectations, the keeping up of appearances, and the toxic “model minority” stereotype that continually hums in the background of your life. These demands are legitimized for the “right” reasons — good grades, a fancy job, high salary, good social status, and having a husband or wife.
This way of thinking originated, for East Asians, from a philosophical tradition called Confucianism. Mental illness is perceived incorrectly as hereditary and incurable — taking away a person’s ability to succeed in life and to care for others. Nevertheless, in these cultures, everything you do not only reflects your own internal self but also a representation of the family. Not being successful causes the family to “lose face,” which frequently leads to intense feelings of shame. Psychologists Patrick W. Corrigan and Deepa Rao have raised concerns that this stigma will result in not only students’ own disappointment but also the disapproval and social exclusion of their family or community.
The mental illness stigma is so deeply entrenched in Vietnamese culture that it causes generations of children to struggle in silence and never seek help. This particular behavior, according to psychologist Ben Tran, is called “hiding up.” Hiding up is the act of both keeping one’s mental illness hidden from the community and not doing anything to treat the illness itself. Not to mention, it’s a dangerous combination for their well being.
Talking about mental health with your children
“I have feelings too, but my parents only see everything in their point of view,” says Christie. “I just wish that they could be more considerate and understand how I feel whenever I talk to them about my studies and the difficulties in balancing between studying and having a part-time job.”
Prior to the Doi Moi era (1986), the Vietnamese way of life was heavily oriented around the idea of “collectivism,” where individual issues were often dismissed for the needs of the family or community. Decades later, much has changed and much hasn’t. There are more conversations surrounding mental health and more empathy, but many parents lack awareness of mental illness symptoms and don’t know how to reach out to and truly be there for their children who have certain mental health concerns or psychological vulnerabilities. With the kids now halfway around the world, communication issues get worse than ever.
So what can parents actively do to be better allies with children who have mental health concerns?
Model positive sharing about emotions and challenges
First and foremost, parents should acknowledge the existence of mental illness, that it can happen regardless of age, gender, and social circumstances. Children model behaviors demonstrated by parents. By being consistently open about the existence and importance of mental health, parents are giving us the strength to come out of hiding.
“Part of breaking the stigma about mental health means being transparent (as appropriate) about how parents themselves maintain their own mental health,” Dr. Alexandra Hamlet, PsyD and clinical psychologist in Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute says in an interview. Whatever you do to stay sane and healthy, for instance, taking prescribed medication for depression, seeing a therapist, working out, or doing yoga to stay sane — sharing what you do with your children can inspire them to also stay mentally fit.
Actively check on students’ wellbeing
Parents should let us know that they care about our mental health. With the time difference and distance, it’s possible that students will try to hide their true feelings from their parents, but it’s important to check on them whenever time is available. Starting your talk with something interesting about your day that’s short and entertaining (whether vulnerable, self-deprecating or full of pride) — can make students feel safer to be honest about their day. Then, opt for specific and open-ended questions to avoid “I’m fine” answers. For instance, “What was your favorite part of the day?” or, “What was difficult for you today?” or perhaps, “What would you like me to know about today?”
Listen with no judgment
Sometimes parents consider students’ feelings “unavoidable in the developmental phase” and ignore the possibility of a serious issue. Having feelings dismissed is a painful experience when students are already struggling. Due to generation gaps, problems that seem normal to parents can be strange and new for students. That’s why parents should try to be empathetic and open to new perspectives so that they listen to the whole story without interruptions and preconceptions. Use neutral tone/inflection while communicating to make sure there are no assumptions. And be aware that we are not always expecting you to give us advice. Sometimes we just want you to be a listener while we rant about things that are troubling us.
With all of this being said, the ultimate purpose is to create open and supportive relationships between children and their parents. Going to a new country for education can be an exciting but fragile chapter in students’ lives, thus it is important that parents show their children care and support. If they don’t get it from you, they might seek it elsewhere, and in the worst-case scenario, from unhealthy ways that may harm them.