The art of the rebound for international students

Helping students with mental health issues requires an approach that teaches them resilience, argues Frank Haber

九月 26, 2019
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International higher educators are becoming increasingly aware that foreign students facing mental health and intercultural adjustment challenges are at heightened risk of experiencing not only dissatisfaction and disengagement but also psychological decompensation and dropping out of their study programme.

Yet strategies and practices to aid in students’ adjustment and to provide mental health support, two salient factors in international student retention, seem somewhat incoherent and poorly devised.

From conversations I have had with front-line staff and heads of student services, an ambivalent picture has emerged: student support professionals know that international students require extra attention and care, but they feel professionally and institutionally ill-prepared to deliver those services.

Student support professionals want to respond to alarming mental health-related observations but are unsure about the adequacy and appropriateness of addressing them with the student.

Meanwhile, student support staff, who are not necessarily trained psychologists, often find themselves listening to heart-breaking stories from severely psychologically distressed students who are far from their supportive families and friends. Staff are compassionate about wanting to help and ready to “go the extra mile” but are unsure what appropriate assistance they can give.

At the same time, student service professionals increasingly encounter international students who, they say, have “unrealistic expectations coupled with demanding and self-entitled attitudes” and are rather “impolite”.

In constant search for novel ideas about how best to advise higher education professionals facing complex student mental health dilemmas, I recently found inspiration in an evidence-based psychological concept called “resilience”, which is already being used in primary and secondary schools and which has the capacity to fundamentally transform our international student support.

Tertiary education should seize the opportunity to shift from a crisis to a resilience perspective on international student mental health.

The difference between the two viewpoints is profound. A crisis perspective focuses on restoring safety and security after potentially harmful and disruptive events, whereas a resilience perspective welcomes such events as opportunities to make every affected community member stronger and healthier.

Almost five decades of research on conducive social environments and individual characteristics associated with resilience have yielded evidence that an ability to bounce back from mental and emotional strains can be learned throughout a person’s lifespan.

Resilience thrives on relations with genuinely interested and validating people, who help us to deal with painful experiences such as illness, separation, abandonment, disappointment, loss and conflict. These could be friends or educators who notice from a facial expression that a student is actually not feeling well even though they tell us “I am OK”. It is about being aware that what a student says may be different from what their body communicates non-verbally, and about empathising with their genuine fear of showing weakness or burdening others with their problems.

With the positive potential of caring and empowering systems in mind, I propose making international higher education the next stop on international students’ road to resilience. There are three keys to achieving this.

First, host institutions should communicate much more and more openly about service-related expectations. It should be the view that all insecurities and inconsistencies between service seekers and providers are unique opportunities to have an authentic resilience-strengthening dialogue that accepts difficult feelings that may arise from both students and staff.

Second, to foster resilience among students and staff, universities should invest a great deal more in mental health provision. A host institution can claim that it genuinely cares about the mental health of its campus only if it is providing reliable access to interculturally competent mental health specialists who can offer adequate psychological support to students. These specialists can also advise the system on where it needs to improve stress-eliciting situations such as academic overload or violations of quiet hours in residential facilities.

Third, international higher education should leverage the resilience-creating power of healthy peer networks by investing in more resources that help to foster effective peer support initiatives. The intercultural peer training and peer counselling scheme that we implemented at Jacobs University Bremen as well as the many student-led mental health initiatives supported by progressive universities around the globe are good examples of how that overdue shift from a reactive crisis response to proactive resilience-building can be made.

Frank Haber is a psychological counsellor and intercultural education officer at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany.

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