Dialogue: Loneliness and International Students’ Wellbeing
Authors: Chelcy, Lucy, Claire and Lesi; 18/11/2020
After talking to international students and listening to their thoughts on loneliness and mental health (check out the podcast), we also interviewed professionals in the field, to provide our readers with more insights on this topic.
Professor Helen Forbes-Mewett, Discipline Head of Monash University’s Sociology, and Dr Marlee Bower from USYD’s Matilda Centre tell us that humans long for ‘emotional warmth’, because we are social beings. ‘Neuroscience research has shown that when we experience loneliness, our brain reacts the same way as if we’ve been inflicted with physical pain,’ Dr Bower says. ‘It means we are missing particular relationships’. People may have different personality types, some people are shyer, but ultimately we all need social contact with one another.
How can we build up mental health awareness among international students? And how do we encourage those in need of support to speak out? ‘Research shows that starting university and moving to a new country are some of the most stressful things that you can do in your life. You need to recognise that this is a real change, and don’t be hesitant to speak up if you feel like you need support,’ says Dr Bower.
Professor Forbes-Mewett points out that she has seen mental health awareness improving among international students and in many discussions in recent years. ‘It is important to realise that it’s normal to have stress and strains that come with everyday life, particularly when you’re away from home,’ she says. She encourages students to speak out and normalise the topic of mental health in daily discussion, because speaking out does not only help ourselves, but also helps others. ‘What they’re doing is really helping all the other students feel like it’s okay to come out and say, I’m struggling a bit,’ she says.
Some international students also stated that their remedy to resolve loneliness is to look for an intimate person to talk to. However, this ‘intimate person’ in their ideals is at times inaccessible. So how might one cope with loneliness if there is no one to talk to? ‘Feeling lonely means that you are missing something in your social world, you need to reflect on what is missing, and this is often difficult to do by yourself,’ Dr Bower says. Therefore, she encourages students to reach out to a counsellor or a psychologist when they are struggling.
Family is usually the first place we turn to when we face emotional stress. However, the difficulty in cross-country communication coupled with the generational gap between young adults and their parents significantly undermine the effectiveness of communication between international students and their families. Professor Forbes-Mewett says that students can change after they have had new experiences away from family in a different culture. Students are not merely a product of their family, but also a product of an international education, which can create difficulty communicating with family. It is still important to maintain the connection with family, meanwhile, it is definitely beneficial to broaden the range of people that they talk to. For parents to establish better communication with their children overseas, it is important to try to empathise with their children, who now have different experiences from themselves. Hence, it’s also important for universities to run information sessions for parents, not just students.
Dr Bower says that we need to acknowledge the difficulty that comes with digital communications. ‘Your brain works a lot harder when you talk over zoom than you do in person… It can get exhausting and it’s just not the same,’ she says. She suggests that we can change the way we communicate with family. For example, mix video calls up with other forms of communication (e.g. physical letters).
Professor Forbes-Mewett also tells us that it is very common for people with a diasporic experience to feel lonely. ‘Many people who go to another culture can experience what has been called cultural loneliness… It’s not so much about being alone and not having friends, it’s a different culture, it’s really hard to recreate that same culture,’ she says. ‘Some of the things that they can do is to find the type of food that brings you comfort, and perhaps cook the type of food together’.
Dr Bower agrees that it is absolutely normal to feel lonely in a new environment. ‘The social norms are very different here, Australia does have quite an individualistic kind of society... It can make communication even more isolating when you’re trying to connect with someone’. Both Professor Forbes-Mewett and Dr Bower encourage international students to try to get involved in groups and communities with like-minded people.
While it is beneficial to have alone time for self-reflection, excessive amounts of loneliness can lead to detrimental effects on mental health. Dr Bower tells us that ‘Being alone could be really a good way to recharge and reflect and to look after yourself, but the problem is when we are alone and we don’t want to be, then we start to feel the pain of loneliness,’
So where is the threshold? ‘There is no real rule of thumb to the threshold of alone time because everyone’s experience is really different,’ Dr Bower says. However, she tells us that it becomes a real problem when it becomes a chronic condition. ‘When it becomes something embedded in how you see yourself and the way you socialise,’ she says. ‘So it’s good to try and acknowledge or find out early and try to do things to fix it when you can, rather than waiting too late and having that negative impact on your socialising’.
Under the stress of the pandemic, mental health issues are becoming more prevalent. For international students, it is even more important to speak out. Let us reach out to each other, and to help one another to go through this difficult time.
Associate Professor Helen Forbes-Mewett is Discipline Head of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University and Deputy Director of the Monash Migration Centre. Her work focuses on human security, migration, cultural diversity, and social cohesion, with a particular focus on international students. Her books include International Student Security (Cambridge University Press, 2010), International Student Safety from Crime (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), The New Security: Individual, Community and Cultural Experiences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and Vulnerability in Mobile World (Springer, 2020).
Dr Marlee Bower is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre. She is currently the Academic Lead on the world first Mental Health Think Tank, CoVid-19 Mental Health Think Tank: BHP Foundation. Her main research interests are the emotional and social wellbeing of vulnerable populations, with a particular focus on social isolation and loneliness.
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