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5 ways to prioritize mental health for international and study abroad students

Study abroad students and international students must be placed in a priority position when it comes to addressing student mental health.
By Anthony Rotoli, CEO, Terra Dotta
October 21st, 2022

Having the right people, technology, and counseling services in place will set an institution’s global engagement department apart from others

America’s higher education system is facing a crisis: students’ mental health. A survey by TimelyMD found that 88 percent of college students are experiencing declining mental health, with 75 percent report being more stressed than they were in 2021, even as pandemic restrictions have relaxed.

While it’s clear that the pandemic and global unrest are still sources of the deterioration of a college student’s mental health, the reality is that the changes brought on by the past two years didn’t create the mental health epidemic, but they certainly exacerbated it.

As colleges and universities take inventory of their mental health resources, they cannot overlook the special attention required by their global learners–both incoming international students and students studying abroad. Ongoing economic and political uncertainty combined with xenophobia, discrimination, cultural discrepancies, and the underlying fear of another global health crisis create the perfect storm for a traveling student’s mentality.

Being in tune with the unique needs of learners leaving their families to study in another country is the first step in ensuring their well-being and mental safety.

Here are five tips for prioritizing the mental health of incoming and outgoing students on college campuses.

Don’t Wait for the Student to Seek Help

International students and students traveling abroad are among higher education’s most vulnerable populations. Often, fear of the unknown and limited knowledge of or access to mental health resources can stymie their ability to initiate the request for help. In addition, there’s a global stigma around mental health, so it’s essential to be aware of some cultural hesitations students have about asking for help, especially when away from their home country.

One way to support these students is to provide clear details on what campus counseling services are available and how they can access them. Utilizing a solution to automate communication enables global education offices to connect with students on an individual, more personalized level and effectively get counseling details to students via email, text messaging and social media.

In addition, having the support of another student or advisor from a similar cultural background can help reduce the stigma and encourage them to seek help so they feel more comfortable seeking counseling.

Help Them Develop Valuable Connections

Based on a recent survey of global education leaders, when asked about the ways they’re trying to recruit and retain international students, more than half (51 percent) said that connecting interested students with similar students already attending (based on country of origin and program studies) is one of the top three ways. It’s also important to connect students with counselors who speak different languages and understand the student’s culture. Nothing will turn a student away from counseling faster than trying to navigate language and cultural barriers.

For study abroad students, provide contact information for local American consulates and American medical centers with on-site staff who can help with mental and physical health services that may not be provided in the country they’re studying in.

In addition, offer opportunities where students can build relationships with other international or study abroad students and professionals in the community. This can help them make connections and bolster their confidence when they see respected and successful community members from their culture or home country outside the institution’s walls. For example, to ensure the safety and comfort of its students of color, global engagement professionals at HBCU Tennessee State University are mindful to offer programs in more diverse countries where students will find a community that they can relate to.

And the University of Delaware ensures international students have dedicated career services programs to help support their unique needs and secure  a pathway toward professional development and career competencies.

Merge Technology with Human Connection

While innovation is critical to engaging students and streamlining specific processes, it’s most powerful when coupled with a human element. For example, connect campus counseling centers with study abroad students so they can provide virtual therapy sessions while traveling.

This can be done by providing faculty and advisors directly for incoming students, but it’s vital to also create relationships with staff at institutions in the countries where U.S. students are studying. The administrators at these institutions should be able to monitor study abroad students for possible mental health struggles, such as being disengaged in activities and struggling academically. 

Simply put, be aware of students whose grades or attendance fall behind and proactively offer support to help set them up for successful outcomes and ensure they feel welcome on campus. Personal interactions must be at the center of every student experience, and technology complements this by enabling more communication with students while allowing advisors more time to engage with students and set them on the right path to thrive.

Offer Support During Holidays

Even though holidays provide many local students with a much-needed break and time with their families and friends, it’s also a time of isolation, anxiety, and depression for students away from their home country, especially when they’re missing significant holidays or events on their home campus. Take this time to communicate with students via email, social media, and text to offer counseling resources and schedule video check-ins so they feel supported during a difficult time. For international students, organize an event for those left on campus or connect them with local families who can host and introduce them to an American holiday.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Friendship

As we saw during the pandemic, isolation can devastate a person’s mental health. International students are away from everything they know and everything that makes them feel comfortable, so sometimes, they tend to isolate themselves. Providing opportunities to make friends outside of their comfort zones can significantly impact their well-being. For example, Baylor University offers the Global Friendship Program, which pairs international students with a peer on campus who try to help acclimate them to campus life.

Providing these support services to international and study abroad students enhances the overall student experience and outcomes and increases recruitment and retention rates among global learners at their institutions of study. In addition, having the right people, technology, and counseling services in place will set an institution’s global engagement department apart from others. Most importantly, it will provide these potentially vulnerable students with the mental health support they need to succeed in their area of study and achieve their post-graduation goals.

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