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Promoting mental health on campus

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
    • The following item is adapted from the 2018 edition of ICEF Insights magazine
    • It explores mental health challenges for international students and highlights some best practices for student supports
    • The complete issue of ICEF Insights is available to download now

International students go abroad to study, but they also go abroad to immerse themselves in a different culture and make friends. They take with them a host of expectations, needs, and concerns, some of which overlap with issues domestic students face. But some are different.

For example, all students may find it difficult to adjust to a new academic and social environment, but international students may have an additional set of challenges, such as:

  • Culture shock and/or significant homesickness;
  • Language barriers;
  • Uncertainty about how to find friends who share their religion, language, or culture;
  • Prejudice or other forms of discrimination or exclusion.

These challenges can negatively affect students’ experience studying abroad, and when the challenges are severe, they can be so devastating that they cause students to abandon their studies. Research conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors in the United States has found that depression is the number one reason for students to drop out of school.

Such outcomes are both highly distressing for the students concerned and damaging to the reputations of the institutions hosting them. However, there are ways of reducing their occurrence. Knowing that students’ overall satisfaction is strongly determined by their experience of campus life and aware of a growing epidemic of depression among youth, leading institutions and schools are increasingly prioritising mental health. They are designing comprehensive support services that anticipate a full range of potential challenges for international students, adopting a proactive approach to mental health.

Best practices

Institutions that are serious about international students’ mental wellness align mental health support with their overall strategic goals and resource allocations, ensuring that:

  • As soon as students arrive, orientation sessions reassure them that there is no stigma attached to mental health issues and encourage them to seek help for such concerns;
  • Students – and their parents – know exactly what services are available to them should they experience psychological distress;
  • A number of staff are trained in basic mental first aid for youth;
  • They provide an online self-administered form that students can use to help them recognise symptoms of mental illness they may be experiencing;
  • Students dealing with mental illness can access culturally sensitive care in their native language;
  • An early detection system is in place for recognising mental health problems when they first arise;
  • All faculty are trained in understanding symptoms of mental illness and know what procedures to follow to support students;
  • Both immediate and long-term resources are available to students.

Some institutions go much further than these basic requirements, with some integrating a vast network of initiatives and resources into their operations. For example, at the University of Victoria in Canada, support services are informed by faculty specialising in student mental health, and a data system is in place to track mental health issues and responses on campus. Ramapo College of New Jersey holds wellness fairs for students to provide a fun environment in which to emphasise how important sleep, exercise, and nutrition are to students’ health. New York University screens for depression at all primary care appointments. Worcester University in the UK offers a range of wellness supports ranging from short-notice emergency help all the way to “fancy a cuppa” drop-ins for students feeling lonely and having trouble making friends.

Universities in several countries are participating in the famous Nightline service founded in the UK and Ireland, a “confidential, anonymous, non-judgmental, non-directional, and non-advisory listening service for students, delivered by students.” Thousands of specially trained students volunteer for the service, now spread across Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, the UK, and the US.

There are scores of examples of institutions providing excellent mental health services for students, and more are doing so all the time. With some experts advocating for university mental health rankings, and a newspaper as esteemed as Britain’s The Guardian offering its own guide for students wanting to know how good an institution’s mental health supports are, there is no doubt that this element of student services will only increase as a priority for institutions and schools of all types.

For additional background, please see:

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