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Study abroad : Before you leave

Bumper guide to mental health for international students

Find out what support services are on offer at institutions across the world with our bumper guide to mental health at university...

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Pursuing a course in further education is a completely new and exciting time for many young people around the world. You have the chance to develop as an individual and take advantage of unique opportunities. However, it’s also likely to be the first time you move away from home, stepping out of your comfort zone and fending for yourself. Therefore, your time in higher education can also be very challenging.

 

According to a recent NUS survey, 80% of students in UK institutions have experienced a mental health issue. A further 30% of those surveyed said that they have also had suicidal thoughts. So, what do these studies show us? Clearly, the mental health of students is a pressing issue in the UK. But what about the rest of the world?

 

In 2017, there was a total of 4.6 million international students worldwide. However, there seems to be a lack of research into the mental health of students who move abroad for their studies, despite the fact that they face a range of unique challenges in comparison to domestic students.

 

Join us as we take a closer look at the topic of mental health among international students and see what services are available in some of the most popular study destinations around the world:

 

Common causes of mental health issues for international students

It is estimated that there could be 262 million students worldwide by 2025. If we consider that 25% of students in the UK have a mental health issue, we can predict that 65.5 million students could suffer with their mental health over the next 7 years. So, for this situation to improve, we first need to understand the causes of mental health issues among international students.

 

Culture shock

Culture shock can be a major cause for depression and anxiety for international students. Whether that’s a difference in social norms, food or general attitudes, it is common to feel unsettled when experiencing a new culture. However, if this feeling doesn’t fade, you don’t have to suffer in silence! It’s important to seek advice and support if you feel low at any point during your studies.

 

Homesickness

Another common cause for feeling down or anxious can be homesickness. Due to the nature of studying abroad, international students may miss their friends, family and the comfort of their home. While this is common, feeling consistently homesick can be really difficult and could affect your time abroad. In this case, it’s important that you speak to someone about how you are feeling, either at your institution or to someone you feel comfortable with.

 

Weather

Depending on your country of origin and where you choose to study, the weather could also have an impact on your mood. If you study somewhere with a different climate to what you’re used to, then this could cause you to feel down. If it’s cold and raining, you are less likely to be outside, which can reduce motivation. One way to combat this is to try to socialise despite the weather. Find out about local places such as a cinema, gallery or shopping centre which can be enjoyed all year round!

 

Stigma

Overall, there are many factors which can affect your mental health during your studies. However, in certain parts of the world, mental health is not as openly discussed as it is in other countries. This could make asking for help really difficult, especially if you are embarrassed to talk about how you are feeling.

 

Therefore, if you decide to study abroad, you might not be comfortable when speaking to a stranger about how you’re feeling. However, the majority of institutions will offer a counselling service with trained professionals to listen to your concerns with complete trust and anonymity. If you are worried about expressing how you feel, then check out our list of common mental health terms.

 

UK

Every year, 443, 000 international students choose to study in the UK. As mentioned earlier, mental health is a prominent issue for young people in the UK and students are a particularly vulnerable group. In fact, 36% of international students claim to have poor mental health. While the figures are much higher for domestic students at 69%, it is important that all students are aware of the support services available to them.

 

What issues do international students face in UK higher education?

International students deal with specific barriers which can affect their mental wellbeing and academic progress. According to Joanna Baker, a therapist and psychoeducation coordinator at the University of Derby, international students may face “culture shock, homesickness, loneliness and feelings of isolation, relationship struggles, worries of both family and social expectations”. So, where do you go if you are dealing with any of these challenges?

 

Support services for International students

Research reveals that 94% of UK universities have seen a steep rise in the number of students seeking help from support services at their institution. In reaction to such high demand, the NHS (UK health service) have now begun working with institutions as part of a more collaborative approach to improve the wellbeing and mental health of students in the UK.

 

Some of these support services include counselling and mentor programs, with 45% of institutions offering an in-house general practitioner (GP). However, international students may struggle to find out about these services in the same way as a domestic student would. Fortunately, most university websites will have a support section where you can contact the relevant service.

 

At the University of Derby, you can also seek advice from the Student Wellbeing Team, which provides a “free and confidential service to all students and applicants”. This support can be accessed online, on the phone or face to face. In addition, international students can also visit the Global Wellbeing Café where they can talk to other students who might be feeling the same way.

 

How can a counsellor help you with your mental health?

During your course, you may feel overwhelmed at times and so it can be really useful to share your concerns with a trained therapist/counsellor. Most universities will offer counselling which can be very beneficial for your mental health. Whether you’re struggling to cope with your workload, social pressures, career prospects or anything else which may be bothering you, speaking to someone is one great way to care for yourself.

 

At the University of Derby, students can speak to a trained therapist to “develop independence, build confidence and assertive communication within the context of their cultural experience whilst exploring the discrepancies in values and beliefs about themselves and others”. A counsellor or therapist may also advise ways of getting involved in social clubs and events to help you settle into university life. However, it is recommended that you enquire about counselling services as soon as you start to struggle, as there can be long waiting lists to speak with a counsellor.

 

However, if counselling sounds too daunting, you could try first talking to a friend or someone close to you. Although you might feel embarrassed, it could also be a huge relief to share how you’re feeling.

 

For students with long-term mental health conditions, you can also apply for a Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) at all UK universities. If you are eligible for the DSA, then you can receive financial support which may cover the cost of a laptop and travel expenses.

 

UK helplines:

Samaritans telephone number: 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)

Mind telephone number: 0300 123 3393 (Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm)

 

New Zealand

In 2017, a total of 125,400 international students travelled overseas to begin their studies in the beautiful setting of New Zealand. While New Zealand offers diversity and breath-taking landscapes, the issue of mental health is of course still a cause for concern.

 

Fortunately, efforts are being made to de-stigmatise the subject of mental health in New Zealand. The government has set aside $10.5 million to fund free counselling services for under 25-year olds, as students currently pay for this support themselves. A further $750,000 has also been allocated to supporting international students in particular.

 

What support services are available for international students in New Zealand?

In New Zealand, there is a real emphasis on support for international students within higher education. The government was the first in the world to implement a code of practice which sets standards for supporting international students, ensuring that they receive the right care.

 

As an example, Victoria University of Wellington offers workshops to help students with the pressures of higher education. According to Gerard Hoffman, Manager of Student Counselling, these sessions cover topics such as “mindfulness and grounding, sleep, managing anxiety and regulating difficult emotions”. In addition, they also have a student wellbeing awareness team which “empowers students by raising awareness and providing education about health and well-being”.

 

You can find out more about Victoria University of Wellington support services here.

 

Similarly, Waikato University is also trying to remove the stigma associated with mental health on campus. If you’re in need of support, there are several student groups which promote “positive psychological wellbeing” such as Unirec, the campus fitness centre. To tackle loneliness among international students, the university also offers a buddy program where new students are paired up with experienced students for additional support.

 

As noted, a common challenge for international students is dealing with a language barrier. At Waikato University, translators assist in student counselling sessions to improve communication and understanding. There is also an international services team where students can speak directly to dedicated advisors for referrals.

 

When should I ask for help?

We know that it can be hard to reach out to people who you are not familiar with when you are feeling down, but it’s important to seek support if you are struggling to adapt to your new way of life. The majority of universities in New Zealand offer counselling services for students, providing advice on a range of issues. According to Mary-Jane Waddington, Associate Director of Student Experience and Support at Waikato University, students should seek help if “their distress is affecting their functioning on an ongoing basis…or if anything is affecting their studies”.

 

It is also recommended that you ask for help as early as possible to deal with these issues before they become more severe. At Waikato University, counsellors and psychologists are available five days a week to discuss student well-being and any problems you might be facing. Even just a few sessions could help you to feel more supported!

 

New Zealand Helplines:

Lifeline phone number: 0800 543 354

Samaritans phone number: 0800 726 666

 

USA

As the number one study destination in the world, the USA attracts the largest number of international students, making up 1.21 million of the 4.6 million enrolled worldwide. Despite its popularity among international students, young adults in America aged 18-25 have the highest percentage of mental illness at 22.1%. So, we can see that students could be susceptible to mental health issues in the US.

Whether you’re currently studying or you’re thinking about moving to America for your course, we’re here to help you find out what support is available if you were to need it.

 

What support services are available for international students in the USA?

Due to the vast size of the USA and the number of institutions, the amount of support on offer for international students is widely varied. However, many universities in the US will offer international student services where you can ask for help and support.

 

International students are also usually offered an orientation as soon as they arrive. As part of this, they may be introduced to the counselling services on campus. At West Chester University in Pennsylvania, students can go to a walk-in session at the counselling centre, where they may offer a mental health assessment. Students can then be referred to free short-term/group therapy or long-term counselling if needed.

 

Similarly, at Trinity University in Texas, students have a compulsory 3-day orientation program to familiarise themselves with their new surroundings. International students also have access to free counselling services for academic and personal support.

 

We spoke to Callum, a UK graduate from Trinity University, who tells us that there is specific support which caters for the needs of international students. For example, he tells us that there is a “writing centre where students can take things they need working on if English isn’t their first language”. He also explains that “you can turn to your resident mentor who can advise you on where you can go and who you can talk to”.

 

As international students are typically far from home, they tend to stay on campus during holidays and half-terms, but domestic students will usually go home during major holidays. This can be a quiet time on campus for international students which could lead to feeling lonely. However, this could also be a great opportunity to meet other students who will probably be feeling the same as you! To avoid spending too much time alone, you could organise a meal with other people who are also staying on campus during the holidays. Or, you could contact your university to enquire about any events they might have planned during these breaks.

 

USA helplines:

MHA phone number: 1800 273 8255

 

Australia

Australia hit a new record of over 624,000 international students in 2018. Home to iconic beaches, prestigious universities and a multicultural society, it’s clear to see why Australia is the third most popular study destination in the world.

 

However, young people aged 18-24 are at the highest risk of having a mental health issue in Australia. With such a large community of international students, it’s important to address the challenges, and in turn providing the necessary support.

 

What support services are available for international students in Australia?

In Australia, all higher education institutions offer support services as part of a legal requirement. These services include general health, counselling, employment, language and academic support. When first arriving at your institution, you will be shown around the campus as part of an orientation program, which is run by every institution across Australia.

 

Most Australian institutions also offer mentor programs, where an international student is paired up with another student. For example, Murdoch University in Perth has Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) to help international students make the most of their university experience. Similarly, Edith Cowan University in Perth also offers a Peer Mentoring Program to develop students, both socially and academically.

 

So, we know that young people are particularly prone to mental health issues in certain parts of the world. Yet, we have also seen that many institutions offer counselling and mentor programs for those students.

 

Still not convinced about utilising your university’s support services? Don’t worry, there are lots of ways that you can support yourself!

 

Australia helplines:

Beyondblue: 1300 22 4636 – 24/7

Lifeline: 13 11 14

 

How can I get involved during my studies?

To make the most of your time abroad, try joining a club or society to become part of the student community. Most institutions will have a fresher’s fair at the start of term, offering sports, social events and volunteering opportunities.

 

At Murdoch University, student accommodation is located in “the village”, which is a social hub for international and domestic students. According to Abbey Barnett, Student Support Coordinator, “This has proven to be a more inclusive environment for international students and good for integrating them into university life, especially during their first year of study and life in Perth.”

 

How can I care for my mental health?

There may be times when you feel anxious or low during your course. But don’t worry! There’s plenty of things that you can do to positively impact your mental health throughout your studies.

 

Firstly, looking after your physical wellbeing through exercise and a healthy, balanced diet, as this can make you feel more energised. Why not join your university gym? Or get involved in a sports team? Keeping active and socialising is a great way to meet new people which can have a positive impact on your mental state. In addition, although you will be expected to work hard, it is also important to take regular breaks to relax.

 

Overall, there are many ways that you can look after your physical and mental wellbeing during your studies, before seeking professional support.

 

Popular wellbeing apps

You might be thinking; how will I find the time to care for my mental health during my studies? Well, as most of us use our phones regularly, why not spend some of this time learning techniques on wellbeing and self-care!

 

Many mobile apps are now considered to be highly sophisticated tools for supporting your mental health, offering tips and practices for mindfulness. Here we’ve selected 5 useful apps to teach you how to manage your emotions in everyday life:

 

1. Silvercloud

Provides tactics for dealing with a range of issues such as stress, communication skills, anger management and relaxation. This app teaches breathing techniques and methods for coping with stress.

 

2. Mind shift

Created for young people who suffer with anxiety. This app teaches methods for dealing with your anxious feelings instead of avoiding them.

 

3. Headspace

An app used for mindfulness and meditation to reduce daily stress. Headspace has hundreds of sessions to help you feel calmer and more focused.

 

4. Catch it

This app uses techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), helping users to note their thoughts with a digital diary where you can record and track how you’re feeling.

 

5. iPrevail

A supportive community where you can share your thoughts and feelings with a trained peer counsellor about any problems you may have. Learn strategies for coping with depression, anxiety, stress or anything else that you might be dealing with.

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The Content Executive for Hotcourses Abroad, Lizzie will be writing helpful articles to support you all along your study abroad journey.

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