There’s no doubt that, as an international student in a foreign country, you’ll emerge from the experience with new knowledge about a different part of the world but also about yourself. However, it can also be frightening to venture so far out of your comfort zone. Whether you’re completing a course overseas or taking part in a shorter exchange programme, international students are required to adapt to a completely new environment, culture, group of friends and classmates, and even language, in a very short timeframe.
Read our tips on keeping your mental health intact while studying far from home.
Mental health away from home
Mental illnesses exist as spectrums – you can experience extreme, moderate or mild symptoms that negatively affect your ability to function in social, work, and family activities.
A 2015 study in ‘The Journal of Global Mobility found that students studying abroad were 23 times more likely than business expats to return home due to a mental health condition.
Change: endure it or embrace it?
You’re new in Amsterdam so your top priorities mostly revolve around finding your feet at your host university, around your new neighbourhood, and in your new social circle. But your response to all these changes will affect how quickly you adapt.
Here are a few warning signs to keep an eye on to ensure that adjusting to your new situation doesn’t take longer than it needs:
- Disengagement: you may lose interest and become unresponsive to the experience through deliberately missing social events, ignoring your assigned host companion’s attempts to check on you, and putting minimal effort into your academic assignments and projects.
- Disidentification: feelings of nostalgia can appear at any point during your exchange experience. That’s normal but be wary of prolonged dwelling as it may lead to severe homesickness. Remember: this change is temporary, and you will eventually reunite with your friends and family.
- Disenchantment: this is where the expectation and reality of your exchange experience don’t match up. You may feel disappointed and develop unhealthy coping mechanisms like sarcasm, self-pity, and self-sabotage to adjust to your new life.
Stay aligned with yourself
For a positive experience at your new university, establish a mental health routine to get your exchange started on the right foot. Give the following tips a try.
- Practice mindfulness: regularly set aside some time to observe the present moment. Allow your mind to acknowledge every thought that arises without judging yourself, and then return to observing the present moment. Mindfulness alleviates us from melancholic nostalgia and anxiety about the future’s uncertainties.
- Connect with people in your immediate environment: resist the urge to constantly call and message your friends and family at home. Embrace their sudden absence with enthusiasm: goodbye familiarity, hello foreignness! See your exchange as an opportunity to connect to your new peers, lecturers, roommates, and neighbours. Put yourself out there and make the effort to meet new friends.
- Keep a journal: it’s simple but effective. Writing down your thoughts while you’re on exchange is a healthy outlet for expressing and managing your emotions. Writing can give you a balanced perspective on your exchange. Document the good, the bad and the seemingly uneventful: problems, hopes, behaviours, concerns, positive self-talk, and anything else that occupies your thoughts.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help. However, better awareness and education are changing the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam provides mental health treatment for their students through a free, web-based intervention called the Caring Universities project. This international initiative was inspired by WHO’s student mental health surveys completed to improve institutional knowledge about the mental health of university students.
In addition, universities throughout Amsterdam are exploring innovative and sustainable methods to assist students’ mental health. The University of Amsterdam offers its students contemplation rooms across its various campuses. These spaces are neutral and inclusive, so students can reflect or meditate in a peaceful and safe environment.
If you think you may need help, don’t hesitate to speak to your friends, host companion, International Officer or nearest healthcare professional.