- Mental health, Views
- 30 April 2021
Page last updated April 2021
Inside the mental health crisis of Chinese university students in the UK
Chinese international students in the UK are facing a mental health crisis, but no one seems to be paying attention. Research has repeatedly shown1,2 that Chinese students at Western universities are experiencing alarmingly high rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues compared to local students. The pressures of immigration and acculturation, combined with high expectations from their families, makes university particularly difficult for such students. Chinese students are also less likely to seek out mental health support,3,4 partly due to lack of awareness and partly due to cultural stigmas.
Such stigma may be on the decline as young people in China become more comfortable discussing mental health, but backlash against Chinese people resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic may threaten the progress that has been made. Waves of hate speech and racially-motivated violence have swept through Asian communities in the UK, making people of Chinese heritage increasingly vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and depression. Similarly, given the overall increase in mental health disorders among university students5 — and the shortage of resources devoted to meeting students’ needs — it’s likely that Chinese students will continue to be overlooked.
Cathy, an accounting student at a university in North West England, added a mandate to “talk to more than three people” to her to-do list each day, but her lack of fluency in English made this difficult
One contributing factor to Chinese students’ experiences may be the false perception that their communities are insular and inward-looking. Language and cultural barriers may make it seem that Chinese students are unwilling to socialise outside of their circles, but if this is true, Chinese students aren’t necessarily to blame.
At Helena’s university in East of England, where she is studying engineering, there are several societies just for Chinese students, where it is easier to form a group of friends. Part of the reason why is culture shock: pub culture is especially alien to many Chinese students. “If you don’t reach out, you can just make friends with Chinese students,” Helena says. “But for me, I tried to break out of this circle and [create] a more diverse friend group.”
Yet, not every student is able to do this. Cathy, an accounting student at a university in North West England, added a mandate to “talk to more than three people” to her to-do list each day, but her lack of fluency in English made this difficult. Her struggle with the social barrier between Chinese and British students was also closely tied to the academic pressures she faced. “In my first year,” she says, “I decided I would get a first-class degree, but [I realised later] that things weren’t going to be that easy.” She often felt stressed because of these expectations, and her conversations with British students enforced these feelings and her sense of distance from her peers: “They were enjoying life at university, but I was like, ‘I have to [achieve] my goals and finish my plan.”
“My mindset of thinking that the school is better than me prevented me from practicing what works best for me”
Among Chinese students, there is also often a desire to make the most of the opportunities that a British university education offers. One student, who chose not to be named, became a sabbatical officer at her university’s student union but said that she had arrived in the UK feeling pressured to focus on her academic performance. “[I thought]: this is the one chance I will get at this institution to absorb everything,” she says. “So, I was like, ‘I need to make good use of my time and just absorb all that knowledge [and] get the value out of my money’.” During her first year, she spent nearly all of her waking time studying. It wasn’t until later, almost by accident, that she became involved in clubs and societies.
Such pressure has its consequences. One physics student, who also preferred to remain anonymous, realised early in their second year that their efforts to conform to what the university expected of them had damaged their academic performance. “My mindset of thinking that the school is better than me prevented me from practicing what works best for me,” they say. “The moment you start doubting [one aspect of your life], you can start doubting everything you’re doing.” This self-doubt eventually led them to take a year out from their studies to focus on their happiness and wellbeing.
People from different cultures experience mental health differently, and those experiences might not always fit neatly into a white, Western diagnostic framework
Though the physics student reached out to their university’s counselling service, inadequate resources prevented the counselling staff from being able to fully support them. Appointments were almost always one-off meetings, when it is well-known that multiple sessions are needed to give any benefit.6 “I needed time to fix things,” the student says. “You can’t fix your plane while flying it.” While this student was able to find relief in taking time away from their studies, the lack of mental health resources remains a problem for many others.
It is imperative that universities address issues of inclusivity in academic and social life and provide more accessible and culturally competent mental health care. As the student who became a sabbatical officer explains, this means ensuring greater diversity within the mental health profession so that students can turn to experts who share similar backgrounds. At a broader level, it means recognising that people from different cultures experience mental health differently, and those experiences might not always fit neatly into a white, Western diagnostic framework.
Beyond universities, the wider public also has a responsibility to engage in more reasoned and compassionate dialogue on subjects like these. Mentions of Chinese students in the UK tend to emphasise fears about intellectual property theft and China and Britain’s financial ties, which overlook the human element of cross-cultural exchange inherent in studying abroad. The presence of Chinese students in the UK is likely to rise further in the coming years, and understanding these students’ mental health needs is essential to ensuring their success.
Featured image is a black-and-white illustration of a Chinese student, resting forward on her arms which are folded over an open book. She is looking over her right shoulder with a pensive expression. Behind her is an illustration of three white students having a drink together
Page last updated April 2021
- Chen, J.A., et al., Chinese international students: an emerging mental health crisis, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, November 2015, vol 54, no 11, pp 879-880
- Wang, D., Chinese international students’ health and well-being in UK universities, Lancaster University, June 2017 [online] [accessed 30th April 2021]
- Han, X., et al., Report of a mental health survey among Chinese international students at Yale University, Journal of American College Health, January 2013, vol 61, no 1, pp 1-8
- University of Oxford, Counselling Service Annual Report, Student Welfare and Support Services, 2018-2019
- Universities UK, Minding out Future: Starting a conversation about the support of student mental health, Universities UK, 2018
- NHS, How it works – Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), NHS website, July 2019, [online] [accessed 30th April 2021]