Understanding international student mental health

Mental health around the world

Numbers from the World Health Organization suggest that one in five young people around the world has a mental health condition. Depression is the leading cause of disability with 264 million people affected. However, mental health support varies depending on the country, province and even the city you’re in. For example, the number of mental health workers varies from two to 70 per 100,000 people. This difference in provisions available means that, for those with mental health conditions, relocating can feel like a lottery in terms of support.

International student mental health - pre-arrival

When international students leave their home country to attend university abroad, they are not only leaving their support system in terms of family and friends, but also the clinical mental health support processes they are familiar with. Whether your country and university provides an easily available or restricted service than students are used to, it’s important the student understands this before making a decision to study at your university.

Bupa in 2019 released a report into the mental wellbeing of prospective international students giving an overview of what some students are facing before starting their studies abroad. One in five displayed signs of depression giving a low life satisfaction score, and 57% produced a loneliness score indicative of a mental health condition.

Country specific trends also emerged from Bupa’s report; prospective students from Vietnam reported the highest average loneliness, stress and pressure to succeed in their future studies, and Nigerian and Ghanian students had the lowest level of life satisfaction. 

Our team of Studee advisors speak to prospective international students daily, and they are often confided in about mental health, and the general anxiety that such a large life change can have. The pressure that some students have to succeed (from themselves or family) means that an academic environment can be difficult in terms of maintaining good mental health.

International student mental health - post-enrollment

A different study from NYU looks at international students once they had started their programs at the university. There was an alarming 90% increase in psychological issues among students from before they started their courses, and over half of all students stated that their mental health had impacted their academic performance in some way.

The common age range of university students also means they are more likely to be developing conditions. The NYU study found that 75% of lifetime conditions have first onset between 18 and 24 years old.

NYU’s multi-faceted approach to address mental health at their university community included:

  • counseling services
  • routine screening for depression
  • a 24-7 Wellness Exchange hotline and crisis response

The financial commitment of studying abroad is also a factor that makes prospective students stressed and concerned about their success. A research paper from the University of Southampton in 2016 summarized that “experiencing financial difficulties and worrying about debt at university increases the risk of mental health conditions such as depression and alcohol dependency [...] The work found that symptoms of anxiety and alcohol dependence worsened over time for those who were struggling to pay the bills. Those who were more stressed about their debt had worsening levels of stress, anxiety and depression.”

When international students are paying more to attend a university than other students, then this financial burden can be escalated. Some visas restrict part time working alongside studies, so addressing the financial worries of international students and considering this as a trigger for mental health conditions can help direct students to the advice and support they need.

Tackling mental health conditions

It’s clear that the added stress and pressure of studying abroad can reinstate mental health conditions or make them worse. The trouble universities have is ensuring that those who need support are coming forward to get it, and that sufficient services are available. Students need to know how to access any mental health provisions straight away, and that there is no stigma in doing so.

There are many initiatives that universities like NYU have in place to promote good mental health or treat those who have a mental health condition:

Mental health fairs

Promoting good mental health on campus can simply be raising awareness of the service you offer students. Mental health fairs are able to do this by setting up a dedicated event to what can be provided on campus, in the wider community, as well as tips and tricks to deal with mental health conditions.

Having a presence to students on campus that may never have actively sought out help with mental health, helps to eliminate the stigma of talking about and dealing with any conditions. It also enables students who are aware of the help available to promote this to friends and classmates where necessary.

Pre-arrival information

Dedicated mental health information to prospective students not only reassures students, but allows them to be less daunted by the process of seeking help. Knowing what to expect from a service can reduce any anxiety a student may face when approaching it.

Outlining conditions and the best process for seeking help for them at your university is information that not only those with mental health conditions can use, but also those who may develop one while at your university.

Mental health check ups / screenings

Due to cultural differences in how mental health conditions are identified and approached, some international students may not recognize that how they feel is part of a condition. Screenings not only help identify issues, but they also provide an opportunity for new students to speak up about their mental health and reflect on how they feel.

It is useful for the university staff students will be interacting with to be aware of things that may affect a student’s academic performance, attendance, or general demeanor. Any changes in these can flag a larger issue and for the university to offer support.

Mental health first aiders

Training for mental health first aid is available worldwide and has been running in countries such as the US, UK and Canada for more than ten years. The training program teaches participants how to help a person developing a mental health condition, or experiencing a worsening of an existing mental health problem or in a mental health crisis.

Having staff or organization leaders trained in this way at universities gives students points of contact throughout an institution that can be approached in times of need. Introducing students to these trained people mitigates anxiety about what to expect from seeking help.

Nightline

Nightline is a student listening service which is open at night and run by students for students. Predominantly a UK-based initiative its success has seen it be adopted in countries across the world including Germany and Canada. 

Trained student volunteers answer calls, emails, instant messages, texts and talk in person to their fellow university students about anything that’s troubling them. As the Nightline volunteers are fellow students, they can directly empathise with their callers’ problems.

Each Nightline service is independent but they all follow five core principles:

  • Confidential – what callers discuss with Nightline volunteers will not be shared outside of Nightline.
  • Anonymous – callers don’t have to give any identifying details about themselves.
  • Non-judgmental – Nightline volunteers don’t judge and support callers through whatever it is they’re going through.
  • Non-directional – meaning callers decide what they want to talk about and the Nightline volunteer gives them a safe space to do this.
  • Non-advisory – Nightline gives the caller space to make their own decisions, and supports them in this rather than telling them what to do. “We’ll listen, not lecture.”

Most Nightlines also offer information and some have supplies such as condoms, pregnancy tests and attack alarms.

Make use of experts

With such large research communities, universities should consult with staff who are experts in mental health, not only to create initiatives, but to measure their success. As each university’s student body is different, it’s important to know that your processes are working for your students, including those who are international and away from the comfort of their home.

As the world becomes more aware of mental health conditions and the best ways to offer help, there are now a wealth of resources giving support on depression, anxiety and many other conditions. Gather trusted resources for your international staff to use as a point of reference for questions and general advice. Some suggestions include: 

Mental health webinar

The content of our international student mental health article and webinar are provided for general information only. It isn't intended to replace a professional's specific advice. Please obtain the relevant professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action based on the information and the webinar.