Social media anxiety, community expectations among mental health stresses for students

In high school, Noor-Ul Ain was faced with a difficult situation.

Her aunt, who lives in Pakistan, had suffered her third heart attack, and Ul Ain wanted to support her family. 

When she asked about taking time off from school to make the trip across the world to help her relatives, she says she had to convince her principal that the stress was taking a toll on her mental health. 

“She told me that my grades actually mattered more, which was terrible because it’s like, I’d hope that you’d really understand my situation,” said Ul Ain. 

The now 19-year-old was able to be present for her family and keep her grades up, eventually making her way to the University of Calgary to study kinesiology. 

But that experience made her an advocate for better mental health practices, and speaking out about the pressures students face. 

Peer pressure in the South Asian community 

For Manahil Hussain, the heaviest pressure she feels is the need to succeed.

She says going into university, she was worried while thinking about how to fit work, school, extracurriculars, and volunteering into her schedule. 

The 19-year-old psychology student says coming from a South Asian immigrant family, she internalized expectations of success. 

“They’ve sacrificed so much for me that I have to do better in school. If I don’t do better in school, I’m a failure, I’m a disappointment,” she said.

In the South Asian community, Hussain says, parents can sometimes project their goals onto their children. 

“That was a really huge toll on me, that I have to make my parents proud…I was trying to make them happy instead of making myself happy.”

Faryal Qureshi is also Pakistani-Canadian, but says she’s experienced a different struggle in the community. 

The 20-year-old says many South Asian parents come from less privileged backgrounds which leads to a taboo in openly discussing mental health. 

“Essentially it kind of comes from the idea that if you, I mean if you have a good quality of life, if you have a decent standard of living, how could you possibly be depressed?” 

Aside from the stigma surrounding the topic, Qureshi says a visit back home opened her eyes to the pressures on women and girls to look a certain way. 

Three young women stand on a university campus.
From left to right, University of Calgary students Faryal Qureshi, Manahil Hussain and Noor-Ul Ain are speaking out about their own struggles with mental health in the hope it helps others experiencing similar challenges. (Jo Horwood/CBC News)

“There were little girls that would come up to me and be like, ‘I wonder how much I weigh, I think I’m too fat,’ and they’re like five, six-year-olds,” explained Qureshi, before recalling another “gruesome” example. 

“My friend’s mother was actually from a specific village, and what the girls would do was that they would actually starve themselves ’til their collarbones would be prominent again.”

While those stories surprised her at the time, she says says social media is causing the same stress on young students in Calgary. 

Social media anxiety 

Between filters and the curated presentations of happy lives on social media, Qureshi says the pressure to be ‘perfect’ is detrimental to young people’s mental health. 

“You feel like you have to be a certain way, you have to fit into a specific category, and there’s this mold made for you, a very tight mold that you have to fit into,” she said.

“And I know specifically, for a lot of girls especially, it encourages eating disorders.”

Qureshi says it’s sad to think that some people look in the mirror and hate what they see, and she believes social media plays a big role in making people feel that way. 

Additionally, Qureshi says social media is “extremely addicting”, becoming a drain on her time and energy that leads to a backlog of tasks – in turn, putting pressure on her mental health. 

“It wasn’t depressing me or anything, but it was turning my brain to mush,” she said. 

“I wasn’t able to go through my daily activities, I felt exhausted. It’s a really weird feeling because when you’re when you’re getting all these like dopamine rushes … it’s a super exhausting experience.”

And when she did fall into the trap of scrolling for a couple of hours, she says she ended up with an overwhelming sense of guilt. 

“My life is garbage. What am I gonna do? I’m a terrible human being. I’m gonna be homeless. I’m never gonna have a job,” said Qureshi, recounting the invasive thoughts she would be left with after spending time online. 

“My sister actually took my phone away and she put a password on it and I was not allowed to look at it for like a month.”

Finding help 

While her experience in high school may have inspired her mental health advocacy, Ul Ain says the university seems better committed to helping students struggling with mental health.

She says there are plenty of places to access help on campus, like student-run clubs and facilities through the school itself, but there are still some pieces missing. 

“I haven’t really received a lot of support from administration or anything, so that’s something that I do kind of yearn for the most, I do want that type of support from teachers and professors because I lack that a lot,” she said. 

While on-campus resources exist, all three of these young students agree they can be hard to find. 

They want to see those supports better communicated so that no one is left tracking down help when they’re already at their lowest point. 

“You have to grasp your students attention to…make them feel like they’re safe and comfortable to talk to you,” said Ul Ain. 

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