World Mental Health Day: three ways to foster good mental health in international students
A global education broadens horizons, perspectives, understanding, networks and approaches to thinking. International students develop their chosen area of expertise while learning new customs and culture. The opportunity is life changing and undeniably exciting.
However, the move to a new country and education system can also feel daunting, unfamiliar or overwhelming, presenting risks to mental health. International students are often navigating their new surroundings in their second or third language, without their usual support network of home. As is the case for domestic students, homesickness, self-doubt, loneliness, financial worry and exam stress can create negative emotions, limiting a student’s capacity to thrive throughout their journey.
The representative organisation for universities across the UK, Universities UK, supports that there is “strong evidence that good mental health has a positive impact on a person’s learning, creativity, ability to concentrate and overall performance levels.” This is why Study Group is committed to delivering excellent support for international students and proactively supporting mental health to underpin wellbeing and academic success.
Every year we welcome thousands of international students to our network of international study centres, where we prepare students for degree and postgraduate study with our university partners and support them to adapt to the academic, cultural and social aspects of life in another country.
On World Mental Health Day, I would like to highlight three recommendations for promoting good mental health for international students to thrive personally and academically.
1. Foster a sense of belonging
Welcoming international students to feel part of a new community can start before the students touch down in their chosen study destination. Through videos, webinars and bite-size communications we familiarise students with their teachers and support staff, introducing welcoming friendly faces before students have even left home.
Once our international students have arrived, induction week begins. Inductions are hugely important in building connection, belonging and community. To help students develop a network of friends we run ‘speed friending’ and campus selfie tours, supporting with campus orientation and getting to know one another.
Students are encouraged during induction to sign up to clubs, societies, ambassador and student representative groups. While supported by our staff, these groups are largely student organised, which helps to create a sense of agency, purpose and impact among international students.
At the Durham University International Study Centre, the Student Enrichment Programme, which we deliver in partnership with Durham University, prioritises belonging as a core element of academic success. Successful elements of the Programme include community integration tours — which are created in partnership with the local council and are delivered by international students who’ve progressed to the University, working with local businesses including theatres and bookshops — and local community volunteering events delivered by our students to support vulnerable women, young people and families.
2. Break down barriers
Conversations about mental health are more prevalent than they used to be but many international students will come from cultures where mental health and related issues are taboo subjects. Acknowledging that mental health is as important as physical health, creating safe spaces and facilitating open discussion can help to break down barriers.
Workshops and sessions can help to set the scene for mental wellbeing. In addition, students tell us that it’s reassuring to have highly visible and accessible wellbeing staff available for one-to-one drop-in support should a group setting be unsuitable.
Providing a range of mental health support allows students with questions or concerns to access resources in the way that feels most comfortable for them. Online tools are valuable by being available day and night so we provide links and guidance on reliable and reputable online sources.
While encouraging honest conversations, we emphasise trust and confidentiality. In our European international study centres, we explain that personal information for over-18s is protected by the General Data Protection Regulation, which provides robust assurance to students.
3. Work with students to co-produce experiences of confidence and community
To create meaningful, fulfilling experiences, it’s vital to listen to and work with students. International study centres take all opportunities to gather feedback from students and use it during the planning phase. Co-producing wellbeing and belonging activities with international students helps to ensure that initiatives are authentically delivering value.
Something as simple as involving former students in planning and supporting with inductions for new students can send a clear signal that wherever they are from, they will be heard, respected and very welcome, which will help to set new students on the right path for positive mental health.
At our international study centres, for example, many have and student representatives that liaise directly with staff to co-create relevant support. Additionally, student wellbeing champions can provide another avenue for students seeking support if they feel more comfortable talking to a peer.
Student Minds is a brilliant charity specialising in student mental health. They have lots of resources including guidance on how to train and support students to support one another other using “Look After Your Mate” workshop sessions.