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Talking about Mental Health: Scenarios and Responses – Scenario Eight

The following is an excerpt from the handout Talking about Mental Health: Scenarios and Responses, included in Starting a Conversation about Mental Health: Foundational Training for Students. The guide is a facilitator’s guide for use with post-secondary students and the scenarios offer suggestions on how to respond to students who are overwhelmed and feeling distressed. 

These scenarios can be used as starting points for discussions and continued thought about how we can respond with empathy to students while recognizing and honouring their strengths and capacity to achieve balance. We will be reprinting one new scenario every month on our blog.

Scenario Eight

International student feeling overwhelmed by academic and work commitments

Salem arrived in Canada three months ago and is struggling with absorbing school material in English. Salem has to work after classes to support their family, so there is no time for extra tutoring or study club. Because of late-night shifts, they are having trouble keeping a consistent sleep schedule and preparing meals for the week. Salem explains to you that they have a midterm exam coming up. Salem discloses to you that in their culture, grades play a large role in defining one’s self-worth and social status—and this exam is no exception. They are visibly distressed, their eyes swollen with dark circles underneath, and they mention their lack of appetite and lack of communication with their loved ones.

Key points

  • Acknowledge and validate student’s feelings and concerns.
  • Ask if they need advice or a compassionate listener; if the latter, listen attentively.
  • If the student needs advice and support, offer to connect them with relevant services, such as financial aid, international student services, mental health resources, or academic advising for additional support.
  • Offer to support the student in their advocacy with instructors about their school-life balance.
  • Offer to help research food banks, bursaries, and student loan resources.

Possible response

I’m so sorry to hear about what you are going through. Your feelings and concerns are valid and deserve to be heard. I can’t imagine how challenging it must be to navigate school, work, and personal life in a foreign environment, far from home and family. I admire your resilience and perseverance in this difficult situation and appreciate you opening up to me about your experiences. You are not alone, and we are here to support you.

How can I help? Do you need a listening ear or support with brainstorming options? I’d be happy to help you navigate the many student services on campus. Have you spoken to anyone at international student services or financial aid? They may be able to help. Have you contacted your instructor? There are ways to make a request for an extension on assignments. Would you like assistance with that or help with putting together a study plan? We can also look into local food banks and bursaries together, to free up your time to allow for more rest and studying.

When was the last time you connected with family and friends? They care about you and your health; we can call them together if that would help. Your academic performance does not define your worth; there is so much more to you as an individual.

Unhelpful responses

  • This is just an exam, you’ll be fine. This is just what student life is like.
  • Don’t blow this issue up. I had exams too and was just fine.
  • I don’t see other international students complaining. You should be grateful you even get to be here.
  • Actually, I had the same problem when… [continue talking about yourself ].
  • It’s because your English isn’t that great. Things will get a lot easier when your English improves.
  • Just talk to your instructor, it’s not that big of a deal.
  • Wow, the way your culture is this focused on grades is so regressive.
  • This is school, what did you expect?

This handout is licensed under a Starting a Conversation about Mental Health: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Foundational Training for Students International license (CC BY 4.0 license). © Malena Mokhovikova (CC BY 4.0 license) 

“Starting a Conversation about Mental Health: Foundational Training for Students” includes a facilitator’s guide with handouts and a PowerPoint presentation. This adaptable training resource covers foundational mental health and wellness information for post-secondary students and ways to respond to peers who are experiencing distress. It can be used for a two-to three-hour synchronous training session or for self-study. 

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The featured image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Daniel Jurin