International students, mental health and transition

Published 16/02/2021

In an increasingly unpredictable world, many students are struggling to feel that they have any control over their future. At least for the foreseeable future.

Schools open. Schools close. Schools go online. Schools open. Schools close. Rinse, repeat.

For the class of 2021, set to head off (or maybe not) to university later this year, the reality for many international students is that they may end up in future lockdowns that are more intense or even longer than those they have already experienced.

“Students can often be reluctant to reach out for support even at their schools”

I work as a Head of Sixth Form at a British International School in Thailand and I certainly worry that this could well be the case for a number of our students, who are currently in the process of applying to schools in the UK, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Whilst we have certainly seen an increase in the number of students who have decided to either take a gap year, or defer their university plans for a year, many students are still opting to apply as usual – almost as if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic.

Perhaps this is being done with a youthful optimism and belief that things will get better soon. Or perhaps applying to university offers a sense of hope and wonder of what could be, in a time of what can’t be.

One of the biggest concerns I have is that the mental health of students can often already be vulnerable at the time when they go to university and are transitioning into adulthood. This can be the case even without a pandemic going on. Now imagine what it could feel like for students to make this huge life step during a pandemic.

In my experience we are already seeing an increase in mental health related issues at the school level, and this is likely to be exacerbated by an international move and potential future isolation due to ongoing lockdown restrictions.

Research by Forbes-Mewett and Sawyer (2016) has shown that international students are less likely to reach out for mental health support due to the impact of different cultural understandings and stigmas associated with seeking counselling help.

I would also add to this the unfamiliarity that many students have with counselling/mental health support infrastructures. The reality is that many of the countries that international school students are coming from don’t have anything similar to the mental health/counselling infrastructure that is in place in the UK.

Often, if international schools are lucky, they will employ a school counsellor, but beyond that there is often limited counselling support available outside of the school, and much of what is available is medicalised intervention.

So, even knowing how to access support will require a level of independence that many students are only just starting to develop. Students can often be reluctant to reach out for support even at their schools, where people know their name and who they are. Consider the difficulty they may face in reaching out for support in exponentially larger institutions where the staff do not know them, in a country that they have never called home.

This issue is further complicated when we consider that Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has recently expressed concern that currently many existing UK services are currently unable to meet demand. Given the current climate, I’m sure this may also be true of other countries with similar structures of public mental health support.

Finally, the sense of belonging that is so integral to international students being able to settle into their new lives is likely to be greatly affected as a result of both ongoing lockdown measures and orientation processes most likely occurring online.

With the ongoing concerns held by many international students with regards to accepting their UK university places come September, my feeling is that universities must be more proactive in terms of the mental health provision available specifically for international students, to prevent future and prospective international students looking elsewhere for the foreseeable future.

Universities need to find creative ways to reach out to reluctant students, and the planning for this should start now.

About the author:

Dr Sadie Hollins is Head of Sixth Form at an International School in Chiang Mai.

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