A former Dubai pupil who is in her first year at Stanford University is working to raise awareness about the mental pressures on international students.
Lamya Butt, 19, from Pakistan, who is a former resident of the UAE, made it to the top-10 list of the Global Student Prize in 2021.
The $100,000 Chegg.org prize highlights the work of exceptional pupils and students making an impact on learning and the world.
Ms Butt is now playing an instrumental role in the Student Mental Health Week that takes place from February 6 to February 12.
It is organised by edtech company Chegg, in collaboration with non-profits such as Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, Jewel’s Inspiring Children Foundation, Varkey Foundation, Jed Foundation, and Young Invincibles. Several universities across the world will host different sessions.
During the week, Ms Butt will organise an on-campus event at Stanford University to raise awareness about student mental health, while encouraging her peers to share their experiences.
She said many students seemed they were doing OK when they were really not.
“Especially for international students, there's a lot of pressure knowing that you have to make the best out of the opportunities that you have. For example, I’m on a full scholarship at Stanford University and for me, it's very important to make my parents proud,” said Ms Butt.
“I thank God I don't feel any pressure from my parents, but with international students, I've definitely felt the additional sense of anxiety over the future and over applying for internships.
“When you go to a university like Stanford, there is such high academic rigour and there's always this pressure of doing the best academically, but also being social and trying to find your next internship and also trying to join all the different clubs, it gets very overwhelming.
“There's a culture created and everyone on the outside looks like they're doing OK, but internally, they are struggling.”
Mental health issues after the pandemic
Earlier this year, the Chegg.org Global Student Survey, covering 21 countries, showed that nearly one-third of students worldwide (32 per cent) felt that their mental health had worsened since returning to campus after lockdown restrictions.
The survey also showed a quarter of students felt so anxious about their study loans that they had sought medical help.
Ms Butt will be hosting a mental health check-in session to encourage the conversation around mental health for students at Stanford University on Wednesday.
She said she would record student testimonials about mental health on campus and ask people about mental health initiatives.
The former Dubai Scholars Private School pupil said her message to youth in the UAE and the US is to “please reach out for help. You're not in this alone.”
She said people needed to understand that it was OK to not be OK.
“It's OK to have those conversations with people around you. I think when we reach out for help, is when we are the most vulnerable. But also, it's the hardest first step,” said Ms Butt.
“A lot of families back home are very sceptical about mental health but I think it's as important as physical health.
“I think if I could send a message to parents it would be 'please listen to your children and don't dismiss what they are going through.'”
Ms Butt spoke of the culture shock she faced when she moved to the United States for her studies.
“I was shocked at how open mental health conversations are compared to back home in the UAE,” said Ms Butt.
She feels that in the UAE, people do not speak about mental health enough within informal circles, families, friends, and schools, but were able to access help easily.
On the other hand, she said people in the US spoke about mental health a lot more, but the systems in place in the US made it difficult to access healthcare.
She said she wants to ensure the conversation on mental health does not die down, even after the mental health week.
“We are proud to launch Student Mental Health Week, and hope to put this issue right at the top of the policy agenda,” said Dan Rosensweig, president of Chegg.
“Students around the world face a perfect storm of different challenges – from learning in the aftermath of the pandemic, rising debt levels, and now global economic uncertainty.
“Through this campaign, we want to continue our commitment to holistically supporting students, so that they can make the most of their education, their relationships, and their ability to face the future with confidence.”
The global campaign aims to destigmatise mental health among students and encourage young people to look after themselves.
Close to 40 per cent of young people aged 18 to 24 in the Middle East struggled with their mental health last year, a 2022 global study found.
The Mental State of the World Report in 2022 ascribed the worrying trend to the Covid-19 pandemic with its repeated lockdowns, study at home and long spells of enforced isolation.
Chegg will bring together mental health resources, including simple tips to improve mental wellness, under a centralised online resource, and signpost the support available to its millions of students worldwide, by a new Student Mental Health Week website.