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‘Selling a false dream’: Indian students abroad open up about mental health issues

‘Study abroad journey portrayed as an ideal and enjoyable experience, often neglecting to convey the realistic aspects

‘They really oversell USA, UK and Canada’

‘Indian agents selling false dreams’

While the number of study abroad aspirants from India has seen an increase in the post pandemic world, is the condition getting better too?

As per a study conducted by authors from the University of Birmingham, King’s College London and Imperial College London, international postgraduate students had higher rates of depression, anxiety, stress, and suicidal thoughts than the UK population, and very few of them sought help to fight it.

A lot of Indian students who are studying in different parts of the world — the US, the UK, Germany, Poland, Canada, Australia — have complained that ‘studying abroad’ has become lonelier, especially since after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Read | Comparing cost of studying abroad in US, UK, Australia, Canada, Europe

Some researches have shown that university students, in particular, have experienced significant fear of the Covid-19 pandemic related to intolerance of uncertainty and a lack of quality of life related to the reduction of social contacts.

Arun Patric, a MSc supply chain management student who went to the UK in October 2020 told that it was extremely difficult to adjust to the change that this shift in continents brought.

“Unlike how I was known in India, I am an introvert here. Life in the UK is tough because we are living inside a box. We wake up, go to university, do a part-time job (if you have one) and then come back to our small room; the cycle keeps repeating. It gets lonely a lot of times,” he said while adding that his cousin is also in the same country, who turned out to be a support system.

Morning coffee runs to happening club life — fake!

Students also complain that the image people paint on social media is a “rosy and fake one”. The life of an international student is usually shown as one filled with fancy university lectures, big libraries, great friend groups, parties and travelling around the world. However, students currently living their study abroad believe this is a built-up scenario to sell more dreams.

From morning coffee runs to a happening night life, Indian students claim these rosy pictures are often not true. From morning coffee runs to a happening night life, study abroad students claim these rosy pictures are often not true. (Representative image. Source: Pexels)

“Life of study abroad students here is tough. You have to work part-time as the cost of living is extremely high. And it is hard to find jobs, be it full-time or part-time,” said Shilpa Pradeep, who is currently pursuing a PGD in Digital and Content Marketing from York University, Canada.

Post pandemic, the students abroad had to face multiple issues including higher rent. “I came to Germany towards the end of 2021 and while things were back to normal, it is still not easy. The rent went almost twice as high and because many locals returned to their country, the number of jobs for international students reduced,” *Kriti (name changed on demand) said.

Also read | How to plan your finances if you are aiming to study medicine in the USA

International students also wish to break the “fake image” that people show on social media. Be it morning coffee runs or happening club life, the picture of studying abroad is usually shown as “straight out of a movie”, which is far from the truth, students said.

“Many people think that I might be ‘living my best life’ but the truth is that I am washing utensils or working in warehouses to make ends meet. I struggle to attend lectures in the day and finish up assignments waking up till 3 am to ensure I get a good grade, and all the cooking shenanigans are missed out too,” *Kriti added.

Study abroad students are also constantly anxious due to the uncertainty of living in a foreign land, especially after a period of the global pandemic, Ukraine-Russia war, floods and heatwaves in the US and more.

George Kuruvilla, who is currently pursuing his second masters in political science from Poland, shared how he could not return to India even when his father passed away. “You miss out on a lot of your family events and important days, and sometimes it is tough to be there for them on sad occasions too. When my father passed away, I could not travel back to India and my mother and younger brother handled everything back home. It’s been a few years and I have still not been able to meet them,” he shared.

‘Study abroad agents neglecting to convey realistic aspects’

Study abroad students have added that it is usually Indian agents who sell this picture to students. Arun Patric claims that if he had known the real struggles of living abroad as a student earlier, he may not have considered this as an option.

Endorsing with Patrick, Ramya added: “It’s evident that there is a tendency for Indian agents and people in general to portray studying abroad as an ideal and enjoyable experience, often neglecting to convey the realistic aspects. While the allure of a new adventure and personal growth is real, the portrayal can be skewed. The reality consists of demanding coursework, juggling of part-time on-campus jobs, mastering effective time management, balancing personal and academic commitments, building new friendships, and navigating through various challenges to keep your sanity in so much work.”

Also read | New UK immigration rules may affect Indian students’ family visas

*Kriti also shared that when she met her study abroad agent, she was told that it would be too easy to find a part-time job, and that she would be able to pay off her study abroad loan through that. However, she has been unable to start paying off the loan as a lot of her earnings go into her daily expenses.

Online world — the new bane

The fact that a lot of the academic world is now online-based also further adds to the pressure on Indian students who have travelled across the world to get quality experience. “During my initial semester, I encountered significant mental health challenges and my personal life cycle was worse than I could have ever imagined. The transition to a new culture and country brought with it a host of difficulties. The competitiveness of my peers, unfamiliarity with the education system, and the complexity of the coursework all contributed to the unexpected stress I experienced,” said Ramya Tulasi Dega, who is pursuing MS Entrepreneurial Leadership from Texas A&M University, US.

Arun, too, recalls that when he started his study abroad experience in the UK in October 2020, things were mainly online. Even though the university was working in a hybrid mode, people were afraid of stepping out of their homes even for essentials, let alone for lectures. “Even though I tried going to the lectures, the empty university campus crept a sense of loneliness in me. By the time things went back to pre-pandemic normal, my course was over,” he recalled.

However, some study abroad students have also said that while the journey is hard, seeking help has worked out for them. Sabine Ameer went to the UK in September 2020 and had to take an extension of four months due to an injury.

“My injury made it almost impossible for me to write my dissertation and I had to take an extension. Due to this, I was facing some mental health issues, but my university, my GP (general practitioner), and my therapist helped me a lot. They made sure I had all the resources, support and motivation to get better. At the same time, I know someone who had a terrible accident but she did not receive the same kind of assistance in India. So, the fact that there is very little taboo around mental health in a few countries makes it a tad easier for Indian students abroad to rationalise the situation,” she said.

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A lot of universities are also actively providing therapy to the students, which has come as a helpful tool. A student from the UK told that she started seeking help from therapists available on-campus and that led to her grades increasing significantly.

“During the pandemic, I could not return to India and my mental health started taking a beating. Due to that, my grades started falling too, and that was when my teacher advised me to e-meet a therapist. I started attending free therapy sessions, which were being offered by my university at that time, and slowly I was able to get back to life. My grades increased, and so did my energy in a few months,” said *Radhika (name changed on request), who went to the UK in 2019.

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Keeping in mind the rising concern for diminishing mental health in colleges, some universities also introduced courses to help students. ‘The science of wellbeing’, First introduced at Yale, was one of the most popular courses of 2020. The course became a hit in 2020 with over 2.5 million enrolments across the world.

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