Careers intelligence: how to support international student mental health

Universities need to be able to support the needs of overseas learners, but should not regard them as being completely different from domestic recruits, say experts

August 29, 2019
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Amid growing concern about mental health on campus, one group of learners who are often regarded as being at particular risk are international students. Among the potential causes are linguistic and cultural barriers, stress arising from the financial burden of higher tuition costs and associated familial pressure that comes with studying overseas, social isolation, and ignorance about how to ask for help.

There is a paucity of robust research demonstrating the impact of mental health issues on international students compared with domestic recruits, although a 2017 University of Plymouth study found that overseas learners frequently mentioned feelings of loneliness, displacement and embarrassment. Nevertheless, with international students representing a significant portion of the university population in major developed sectors, institutions and charities have started to design new strategies to better cater to their specific needs.

“We have long advocated for equal opportunities for all groups of students and believe all students should have the chance to thrive in university,” said Rosie Tressler, chief executive of the charity Student Minds, which is part of a research project seeking to develop “more culturally competent” support for overseas learners’ well-being. “In the past few years, it has become clear from conversations with our student volunteers, networks of academic and student services staff and organisations such as the National Union of Students that there is a need to shine a light on the experiences of the diverse international student community.”

The Student Minds project, which is led by the University of Nottingham and includes the University of Leeds and SOAS University of London, received support worth £316,000 from the Office for Students in June. It will seek to develop a good practice guide for distribution nationally and internationally.

While this is the first project of its scale, some higher education institutions have already tailored some of their mental health provision to the needs of international students. Brunel University London, for example, hosts talks aimed at foreign students, and encourages second- and third-year undergraduates from overseas to offer peer support through its “Brunel buddy” and student ambassador schemes, explained Brunel’s deputy head of counselling, Peter Eldrid.

But on the whole, initiatives such as the OfS-funded one are expected to help tackle an issue that some believe has not been properly addressed in the past.

“I think it is impossible to say ‘in general’ when it comes to university counselling services, because every university is different, with a different student population with different needs,” said Nicola Byrom, lecturer in psychology at King’s College London.

“Many universities are making a real effort to support their students. However, it is a challenge to understand how best to do this. This is difficult in general and gets more challenging when considering international students, where culture as well as other stresses may affect the student response as well as their take-up of support,” Dr Byrom added.

The stigma attached to mental health struggles in many countries and the Western-centric approach to counselling services could contribute to a reluctance among international students to seek support.

Graham Towl, professor of forensic psychology at Durham University, said that addressing the latter factor should be a priority.

“Having more diverse counselling teams is part of a solution to meet international student needs,” he said. “Training for counselling teams on cultural differences may be helpful, too.”

Some innovative strategies have already been trialled in the US. At Cornell University, mental health counsellors are encouraged to list the languages that they speak and their knowledge of different cultures in their online biographies. The institution has also created international student support groups for members to share their experiences and offer advice to each other. Meanwhile, at Harvard University, the locations selected for mental health drop-in sessions include a site adjacent to the international students’ office.

“I think it’s really important to have a diverse staff, ideally one that can offer the option of counselling in other languages. A lot of people have enough difficulty articulating their inner cognitive and emotional experiences in their native tongue, much less a foreign one,” said Wai-Kwong Won, assistant director for community-based services at Cornell Health.

“Staff with an international background can be very helpful as well, because it can provide valuable perspective on this experience as well as credibility.”

However, experts agreed that, while institutions should have plans in place to support international students, they should not be singled out as being completely different from home students in their worries and struggles

“On the whole, international students are likely to present with similar sorts of issues as home students. We need to be careful to acknowledge, but not overstate, differences,” said Professor Towl.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Guide foreign students on the path to mental health

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