How are international students coping with the Covid-19 pandemic?

International students present a unique lived experience that university counsellors must acknowledge when helping them through the pandemic and online learning

July 24 2020
mental health, international students, studying, students, covid-19, coronavirus

Covid-19 has drastically changed the educational landscape for millions of university students around the world, and international students have their own set of unique challenges. The many sudden changes, along with the chronic stress of the pandemic, may pose mental-health challenges, particularly if students suffer from pre-existing mental-health issues. 

International students worry about things such as visa and graduation status; optional practical training (OPT) opportunities being harder to obtain or cancelled; whether to go home (if that is even an option due to border closings); living far from loved ones and not having a strong support network; having to find a place to live if dormitories closed; and finances (many have lost jobs and in some countries banking services cannot be accessed due to shutdowns, so families may not be able to send money).

Dr Stephanie Chong, who has completed multiple degrees as an international student and is now working as a counselling psychologist at an American university counselling centre, reports that many complex factors, including the uncertainties and “heightened sense of isolation” brought on by Covid-19, are affecting the mental health of international students. 

Furthermore, there has been a reported increase in prejudice, xenophobia and racism that might adversely affect the mental health of international students. 

ChiChi, a Thai communications design undergraduate who has been studying in Belgium, reports multiple incidences of slurs being directed at her on campus such “corona” and “no mask” (when she was wearing a mask). “It just kind of opened my eyes to how some people are,” she says. She says these experiences often reduced her motivation to study and sometimes made her sad or angry.

Similarly, Davi, an aerospace engineering undergraduate from Cambodia, was told to “go back to China” on her campus in Israel. This affected her emotionally and academically. 

With most colleges and universities teaching online due to the virus, many international students are likely to find this mode of learning more challenging than domestic students. Dr Chong says: “Distant learning can add additional stress for [international students], particularly for non-native speakers who might struggle more to understand when important social cues are harder to view on screen.”

Affifa, a master’s of counselling student from Pakistan studying in Thailand, agrees that she has experienced adverse effects to her academics, personal life and mental health. As part of her internship, she has also been counselling international students since the outbreak and she sees that they have been experiencing similar effects.

The biggest challenge that she has faced is worrying about loved ones in other places “with no hope of being together anytime soon due to the suspension of flights. My family is split over three countries,” she reports. “This makes me anxious and concerned every day as I am following news in all three places.”

Affifa reports increased anxiety, stress and frustration as well as disruption to her productivity and routine. She is worried that she won’t be able to complete her thesis on time to graduate as it requires going into the field to collect data.


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Positive reframe

Despite many seemingly negative aspects, many international students have demonstrated admirable resilience and adaptability during these times. With the right support from loved ones and, even more critically, from universities, many international students will be able to maintain good mental health.

However, some international students have not been that negatively impacted by the pandemic and some even prefer it. Derick, a software engineering computer science undergraduate student from Vietnam studying in Arizona, says the pandemic has not really affected him and in some ways he likes it because he does not have to go to campus. 

“I'm not a person who likes social interaction,” he says. “With this coronavirus, I'll still be studying and playing video games in my room.” The main change he reports has been that "I’ll just have to buy more stuff on every grocery trip”.

Affifa also appreciates the efficiency of working and studying online and the amount of time she saves by not driving. Davi also reports using the extra time to complete many self-improvement activities, such as yoga, meditation, writing and online public speaking. 

To stay or go?

If they are staying, many international students have had to scramble to find where to stay as the majority of universities have asked students to vacate dorms. In America, international students were told that they would be unable to stay in the country if they were only studying online. Shortly after, after multiple lawsuits and advocacy, this policy was reversed. These kinds of uncertainties likely leave international students feeling more anxious than ever.

Davi, Affifa and Derick did not consider returning to their home countries. Derick’s roommate, on the other hand, an undergraduate from Taiwan, experienced financial struggles and worry about his family back home, so decided to break his lease and return home.

As for ChiChi, experiences of discrimination and being restricted in what she could do made her disappointed in her study abroad experience. So, she decided to return home to Thailand, where she had to spend weeks in quarantine. After returning, she reported difficulty keeping up with academics in addition to the fear of possibly giving the virus to her family members.

University counselling centres are critical

Since the pandemic can have adverse consequences for international students’ mental health, it has been recommended that universities continue to provide evidence-based online counselling services. Most campuses have risen to this challenge by moving their counselling services online and providing free consultations by email, phone or video calls.

Online counselling, however, poses major issues. One especially problematic issue, particularly for international students who travel back to their home countries, is that many licensing bodies do not allow counsellors to provide services to clients in other states, provinces or countries. Hence, they may not have access to therapeutic services through their universities or may have to discontinue seeing their current counsellors.

Dr Chong suggests that university counselling centres could offer specific international support groups or workshops in virtual spaces where their shared unique challenges are normalised. 

She says reaching out to international students can help eliminate some of the stigma they may feel about accessing mental-health services.   

Derick says his university did reach out to him specifically about online counselling services, but he doubts that he will need them. Affifa was also informed by her university about how to access counselling. ChiChi and Davi, on the other hand, did not hear anything. 

Dr Chong suggests that clinicians can be “flexible, open-minded and also engage in self-care and self-compassion” and to help students to form communities among each other. “It’s important to be aware of the unique context for each international student and be curious about their experience,” she says. 

International students are encouraged to take an active role in managing their mental health by reaching out to their social support systems either on campus or back home. Both receiving or providing support for others can be helpful. And if things start to feel too overwhelming, they should reach out to their campus counselling centres or other sources of professional help.

Read more: How to manage your mental health when the world feels uncertain

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