International students and educators connect to support mental health and wellbeing

Students sitting on grass outside campus together

International students and educators connect to support mental health and well-being 

As the UK marks national Stress Awareness Month, Study Group staff and students at the University of Sussex International Study Centre share their good practice to develop positive emotional health.  

To avoid a damaging epidemic of poor mental health in the face of COVID-19, international students and staff are working together to create a culture of openness and support around psychological resilience and welfare.

The University of Sussex International Study Centre has introduced a range of collaborative initiatives that confront isolation and taboos around mental health difficulties, and which encourage international students to feel assured to seek and offer support around emotional well-being. 

According to Dr Mark Cunnington, Chief Operating Officer for the UK and Europe:

“Positive mental health is a huge challenge for us all in these uncertain times, but international students face particular pressures as they study in another language and cultural environment, often thousands of miles away from their usual support structures, or virtually from home, in a different learning environment to the one they had anticipated studying in.

"Our aim in Sussex - and at all our study centres - is to help students overcome stress and to feel connected, more confident, in control and empowered to achieve their academic potential and to build a supportive network of friends from all over the world. To do this well, we need to work with students and help them know they can seek and receive help whenever they need it.”

A whole-education approach to mental well-being includes schemes that directly address support as well as those which provide social networks, educational and cultural confidence. Crucially the voice of international students themselves is at the heart of these efforts, including:

The University of Sussex ‘Connector’ programme, which encourages students and staff to work together as partners to improve the overall experience of international students. Current international students at the International Study Centre are welcome to apply for paid roles working alongside other students and staff on the co-creation of solutions, which make a positive difference. 

Dedicated assemblies delivered by the University of Sussex ISC Welfare Support Team also run twice a week focusing on student mental health and wellbeing. Again, direct experience is key, and former students are regularly invited to share their experiences of dealing with the pressures that come with navigating COVID-19, online and blended study, end-of- semester assessments, and progression into their degrees.

According to Progression Support Team Leader at the University of Sussex International Study Centre, Olly Walker:

“Current students have been inspired by the alumni talks and are encouraged to engage with enrichment activities, such as our Speaking Club and peer mentoring social events as well as clubs and societies run by the University of Sussex in person or virtually, depending on their mode of study.

"Students have found it a revelation that we touch upon mental health issues and the support available to them in such a large student forum, which has encouraged students who are struggling to reach out to our Welfare Support team.”

International Study Centre staff also work closely with the University of Sussex’s residential team to ensure students who are on campus feel supported. University welfare services are available to the entire student cohort and can also refer students to expert campus counselling services.

Social connections, peer support and mentoring are also actively encouraged. The University of Sussex International Study Centre runs two social events each semester, with engagement activities including quizzes, cooking classes and mocktail making. These fun sessions have serious benefits - as well as forming friendships with their peers, learners have the option of being matched to a student ambassador mentor.

The International Study Centre also wants to help students integrate into their UK study experience. With many students still studying online in their home countries preparing to travel to the UK when conditions permit, virtual tours of Brighton help students get to know the city and to introduce them to different aspects of UK culture and society.

Finally, communication is key and fluency in a common language makes a world of difference. English language development support through a dedicated ‘Speaking Club’ takes places three times a week and is a great way for students to practise their spoken English in a relaxed and informal environment. To complement this initiative, a ‘Write Right Now’ quiet study hour every week supports students with written English skills in a caring and comfortable environment, which fosters a sense of community spirit. Students motivate each other to improve their English language capabilities by working together, with the Centre Welfare Support Team on hand to offer advice if required.

Study Group student Khalil Mohammed Salim AL-AZRI from Oman, shares his experience of the welfare support provided by the International Study Centre at the University of Sussex:

“There are many activities that students can make use of at the ISC and university, such as the language café, sports activities, buddy schemes, and others. Joining has really helped me to make new friends and improve my spoken English.”

Professor Richard Follett, Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International), said:

“The past year has been an extremely unsettling time for everybody - none more so than international students, who are far from home.

“We are pleased to be working in partnership with Study Group to support international students during the COVID-19 pandemic, including through our dedicated International Student Support team and Residential Life support for those living on campus.

“The hundreds of staff involved in providing support services care passionately about making sure our students are safe and feel comforted during these extraordinary times.”

Each of these measures can and does make a positive difference in helping international students share their common experiences and feel the support of others who really do understand.

As the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) explains:

“Moving to a new country, learning different methods of studying and forming new friendship groups can be a very exciting time when you study in the UK. But it can also be very scary if you’re adapting to a new climate, potentially speaking in a different language and feel far from your friends and family. 

"Starting a new university, school or college is a big change and all students, whether from the UK or elsewhere, may feel overwhelmed at some point. You’re not alone.”