Effective Coping Methods by International Students With Homesickness and Depression
Published on 3rd February, 2020 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
The demands of being a university student be extremely stressful. Add being away from home in an unfamiliar country to the mix and it can lead one to feel depressed. Feeling depressed and missing home are common experiences international students go through. Nearly 30 % of all new university-level international students reported experiencing negative moods, missing their home country and loneliness (Kegel, 2009). Asian international students, whose cultures value strong family ties, specifically tend to exhibit higher levels of stress and difficulties adjusting to the new environment as compared to European or American international students (Kegel, 2009). These negative emotions can cause difficulties focusing in class, physical health problems and worsening academic results (Thomas, 2017).
Although students are recommended to seeking professional support from their university counselling centre, some students may not feel comfortable doing so. As such, Saravanan, Mohamad and Alias (2019) were interested to explore effective strategies international students used to cope with homesickness and depression on their own.
Saravanan, Mohamad and Alias (2019) screened 520 international students studying in Malaysia for homesickness and depression. They found 29 international students who were unwilling to undergo psychological treatment even though they were experiencing homesickness and depression. The researchers checked-in with these participants three-and-a-half months later and found nine students who had recovered from their symptoms. The researchers interviewed these students to uncover what had helped them. From the interviews, the most useful strategies were:
1. Talking cure
The students would frequently talk to their parents and family members back home whenever they missed home. When doing so, students felt like they were back home and could “share everything and see everybody” that they have missed. Furthermore, their parents would also share useful advice on how they can overcome this difficult adjustment period. Interestingly, students reported that experiencing homesickness actually led them to have a better relationship with their families back home. A student highlighted how he would “always [be] at [his] room and did not interact a lot with [his] parents”. However, after moving away from home to enter university, he “talks to [his] parents a lot [more] compared to before” which helped him to overcome his homesickness.
However, some students also reported feeling more depressed and lonelier after talking to their parents as it made them want to go home more. Instead, talking to friends, especially friends from the same home country who had been through a similar experience, helped soothed some of their sadness. A participant found that when he spoke “in [his] language and talked about everything” with his friends, it “eases [his] sad mood”. His friends would also “give [him] a lot of encouragement” when he shared about his depression.
2. Physical exercise
Keeping themselves active by exercising regularly reportedly helped elevate the low moods of the international students. Rather than staying indoors, a student reflected that “jogging and walking in a peaceful and green environment” helped him “overcome [his] sad moods and homesickness”. He also highlighted that after exercising, he would “get [a] good sleep at night and feel refreshed next morning to attend lectures”. Additionally, joining a university sports club not only kept students physically active but helped them to make new friends and “establish relationship[s] with other nationality students”. The uplifting effect of physical exercise coupled with the friendships made while engaging in physical activity distracted participants from their longing for home.
3. Positive thinking
Many students also emphasised the importance of thinking positively in helping them overcome their low moods and homesickness. A participant reported that she would try to “recall [her] past happy memories” and think about “people [that she] like” to distract herself when she felt lonely. She felt that “negative thinking doesn’t solve [her] problems”.
Also, some participants would compare themselves to other students in a ‘worse’ situation but are doing well. A student who only had to be abroad for a semester thought about other students from her home country who have to spend years in a foreign country and, yet, managed to achieved a lot while they were overseas. These thoughts gave her the confidence that she could also “overcome [her] problems”. Using seniors who overcame their homesickness as role models helped students remain optimistic that their situation would and could get better.
Factors that led to depression and homesickness amongst international students
The researchers also surveyed the 20 international students who did not recover from homesickness and depression to discover what factors they felt contributed to their symptoms. Student’s lack of self-efficacy, their perception that they will not be able to handle the situation they were in, was chosen as the primary reason that led to the continuation of their symptoms. Other widely cited factors that contributed to their depression and homesickness include academic problems, loneliness and family problems.
Studying abroad can be fun and exciting with the many new places to explore and new friends to make. However, as with anything new and unfamiliar, it is rather common for international students to feel overwhelmed by their new environment and long for their familiar home instead. This study highlighted that it is possible to overcome the low moods common during the adjustment period. If you are an international student experiencing low moods, it would be good to seek professional help perhaps from a school counsellor or a trained psychologist. You can also take note of the aforementioned tips to further help you adjust during this difficult period.
University students are not the only ones who might feel down and have difficulties coping in a new environment. Adults too struggle with being alone in a foreign land. Click here to find out why moving abroad is such a tough transition and more tips on overcoming moving abroad blues.
Kegel, K. (2009). Homesickness in International College Students. Compelling Counselling Interventions, 67–76. Retrieved from https://www.counseling.org/resources/library/vistas/2009-V-Print/Article 7 Kegel.pdf
Saravanan, C., Mohamad, M., & Alias, A. (2019). Coping strategies used by international students who recovered from homesickness and depression in Malaysia. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 68, 77–87. doi: 10.1016/j.ijintrel.2018.11.003
Thomas, D. (2018). Factors that contribute to homesickness among students in Thailand. Kasetsart Journal of Social Sciences. doi: 10.1016/j.kjss.2018.07.011
Article written with Charmaine Leong. Charmaine is a psychology undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Charmaine is an aspiring clinical psychologist who is passionate about raising awareness of mental health issues in Singapore. She is currently on internship with ImPossible Psychological Services under the supervision of senior clinical psychologist, Haikal.