Mental health: Tips to help international students flourish

No student should be held back by their mental health, but recent reports indicate a threefold increase in mental health issues for United Kingdom undergraduates over the past six years. For international students there are unique circumstances that can present risks to mental well-being: relocating to a different country and adapting to a new education system can be an overwhelming experience.

In common with domestic students, international students face challenges such as homesickness, self-doubt, financial concerns and exam stress, but international students are navigating these challenges in unfamiliar surroundings, while communicating in their second or third language and lacking the everyday support system they had back home.

Now, added pressure from UK policy-makers positioning international students at the core of immigration discussions, and reducing or removing the right for postgraduate international students to relocate with their partner or children next year, increases concerns for international students’ mental health.

Comprehensive mental health support tailored to international students’ needs will help them to flourish throughout their academic journey. Recognising and understanding the specific concerns of international students can help to inform supportive actions to take.

The immigration conundrum

Political instability, policy shifts, anti-immigration rhetoric and campaigns undermining higher education quality in the UK contribute to an unwelcoming narrative for international students, which can cause doubt and discomfort during application, study and postgraduate employment.

Insights from Quacquarelli Symonds reveal that 25% of prospective international students are exploring alternative study destinations due to UK policy changes. This underscores the negative impact on students and the UK’s status as a preferred study destination.

Moreover, being unable to bring family or dependants while studying abroad may hinder students from thriving in their new environments or persuade them to take their talent elsewhere. While it has typically been only a minority of international postgraduate students that have brought dependants, the potential ramifications on mental health of living abroad from children and partners are obvious.

Creating a welcoming destination for international students in the UK will help to counteract pre-arrival nerves and provide stability for students during their studies.

The importance of belonging

Pathway providers, universities and students themselves are increasingly recognising the critical role that a sense of belonging plays in driving student well-being and success throughout the student journey.

Creating meaningful connections for international students between one another, their domestic peers, new communities and environments helps students to feel grounded and supported.

Clubs, societies, sports, faith-based groups, volunteering and other activities with local impact can stimulate team spirit, purpose, reward, recognition and connection to place. This may become of heightened importance for international students separated from their partners and dependants, with research showing that loneliness can have a direct impact on engagement levels and can significantly hinder academic performance.

Proactive measures in fostering a sense of belonging among international students can start at the beginning of the student journey.

Prior to arrival, give international students the information they need in a timely and concise fashion.

Use induction week to its full potential as a critical time to lay the foundations for a supportive and inclusive community.

Address key topics such as safety, well-being, online security, healthcare access, homesickness, mental health awareness, orientation, enrichment programmes and where to seek help and advice.

Understanding cultural differences

Supporting international student mental well-being requires an understanding of how mental health is perceived around the world.

Although discussions about mental health are becoming more common, some international students may be a part of cultures where mental health discussions remain taboo. The influence of stigma, differing across cultures, can either encourage or impede individuals from seeking help.

Being explicitly clear on confidentiality, and sensitively recognising and respecting cultural diversity, will help with breaking down taboos if required, supporting the diverse mental health needs of international students.

Making a range of support options available and delivering it in a way that caters to individual needs can create an open and friendly environment. Group workshops and regular drop-in sessions are useful spaces where students can connect with their peers or, for those who may not feel comfortable in group settings, access one-on-one assistance.

Supporting students to thrive

Challenges to mental well-being exist for all students, with international students requiring support for some risks specific to their circumstance.

Whether domestic or international, students are integral to the fabric of the UK. All students have a right to an academic journey that is enriching and satisfying.

However, rhetoric from political factions within the UK government and the resultant international perception of an inhospitable environment are a disruptor for those in global education seeking to provide a seamless and profoundly gratifying experience for their international students.

Creating an atmosphere where international students feel valued and encouraged to study in the UK, offering comprehensive support, remaining culturally inclusive and understanding how mental health programmes can be tailored for specific needs will support international students to thrive academically and emotionally.

Alison Baines is student experience director at Study Group.