The Other Side: Recognizing the Risk Factors

Living as an international student has so many great aspects, something that I feel I’ve been sharing a lot in this blog. There are some aspects, however, that are rather difficult but real to many international students, at least at some points in their study period. I’m talking about the aspects of loneliness and isolation, which can lead to depression.

Depression often happens as a result of a complex combination of risk factors. And unfortunately, it seems that there are a lot of different ingredients in the life of international students that can contribute to the creation of the perfect storm of depression. Let me just name a few.

Uprooted, far away from friends and families, most international students don’t have the easy access to the people that they can normally fall back to during the challenging times. Also, lots of people do their graduate studies during the times when they just started a family. For international students, this means that in order to pursue their degree they have to leave behind the people who matter the most such as their spouse or their young kids. This often creates guilt and other emotional burdens.

And oh, I haven’t mention the challenge of living in an unfamiliar setting and the culture shock. Many are also experiencing how it’s like to live in below zero temperatures during long winter months for the first time in their lives. On top of that, they’re not there for a vacation… they’re there for study purposes, and you know how demanding it can be. It can also be very lonely, especially during the months when they’re done with the classes and have to be writing their research paper on their own. Writing can be a very lonely job!

To complicate the problem, many students are not feeling comfortable to admit that they are depressed. There is a common perception that as an international students, they should be having the time of their lives. They’re in this wonderful adventure, meeting lots of new friends, and having a great social life. This creates a barrier for them to seek help since they may feel embarrassed to say that they do feel lonely, isolated, or depressed.

The reason why I talk about all of these risk factors is because I believe we need to be aware of them, most importantly if they escalate to suicidal thoughts or behavior, both your own or others. This is especially important because human have the tendency to miss, dismiss, or avoid any talk about suicide. We really need to move beyond those tendencies to be able to prevent harm, injuries or even death. Remember that people who are thinking about suicide are often still feeling ambivalent. They are willing to give cues to invite discussion to stay safe, and our job is to recognize it.

This is a skill that we need to learn, although we may not like it. LivingWorks, a Canadian agency that works on giving training on suicide prevention, has an important framework called safeTALK that can be used to guide us whenever we have the gut or a funny feeling that someone is thinking about suicide and have exhibited unusual behaviors. It helps us to learn to identify persons with thoughts of suicide and connect them to suicide first aid resources.

We don’t need to solve people’s problem and we don’t need to be the professional helper. Sometimes all we need to do is to be there for them, listen, and know where to seek extra help in case we need it.  To learn more about suicide prevention, please read these helpful information:

Suicide is always a tragedy, but it’s preventable. Please learn to do your part to prevent it.


I write this post in memory of Cates, our dear ISS friend from the Philippines. We miss you everyday, dear granny. 


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