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Dealing with mental health during my master’s degree

Luis Manuel Ontiveros-Meza, who experienced mental health challenges during his master’s degree, offers his top tips to help students navigate their own struggles

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    Luis Manuel Ontiveros-Meza

    MA student focussing on North American Studies at the University of Bonn.
    May 17 2024
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    Last April marked the official end of my master’s studies at the University of Bonn in Germany, after struggling for five years to earn my degree. That’s right, five years!  

    I began my programme in the summer term of 2019 and finished once I handed in my thesis at the end of the winter term of 2023-24.  

    In total, I was a master’s student for 10 semesters, in a programme that usually requires four, and much of that time was spent dealing with mental health issues, confronting doubts about the future, and generally figuring out who I wanted to be once I stepped out of university.

    Of course, it’s a lifelong journey; you’re always evolving, becoming someone new. But I believe that for all of us, and especially international students, this carries a heavy weight that is often linked to mental health issues. 

    According to a 2020 study, international students are often particularly at risk of not receiving adequate mental health services during their stay abroad. 

    These issues can be worsened by the challenges of settling into another culture or not knowing how and where to ask for help, especially when dealing with feelings of anxiety or loneliness, on top of the usual stressors that are part of any academic studies. 

    Adding to this, the lockdown during the pandemic intensified many of the issues already affecting international students, and for me, this was precisely when the most difficult challenges started.  

    While the impacts were not obvious at first, at the end of 2020, I was diagnosed with severe depression, which was the main setback to finishing my studies on time. However, what I also experienced then was a profound paralysis about what to do after I finished university, and whether it made sense for me to finish at all. 

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    I didn’t know what career was a fit for me, if any. I underwent a deep and repeated crisis of spiritual faith. I was living in a different culture, without friends and unable to speak German fluently. I was also dealing with constant changes to my existing relationships.  

    Few of us really have the privilege of being certain about the job or career path we will go into after our studies, and any personal or social expectations we’ve internalised become almost unbearable to deal with when already struggling with mental health. 

    So, if you find yourself in a similar situation, and if you’ve been working on your studies for a while without a possible end in sight, let me tell you some things that worked for me. These might not work the same for everyone, as we all have different experiences with mental health. 

    But my first piece of advice is to know and acknowledge that your situation is unique, but still seek out those who have been in a similar position and listen to them. Listen to yourself and be forgiving towards yourself if you can’t get as much done as you would’ve expected.  

    In times of great uncertainty, it is important to learn the skills of patience and perception. Things will get better. You will find your way out of this maze.  

    Second, do whatever you can to find and meet interesting people. It might not seem like it, but you are already doing a lot of networking just by being at university and following your interests, even if they’re only hobbies at this point.  

    Finally, have a toolbox of concrete actions you can take when you feel at your worst. For this, I recommend the website This website provides the user with a self-care game that guides them through a series of questions to help practise self-care. It’s particularly beneficial for those struggling with self-care, executive dysfunction and interpreting internal signals. 

    In reality, every international student probably goes through a period of crisis at some point during their studies. You can always reach out to the student council, the international office and to professors. The university will help you to find the resources that work for you. 

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