Ensuring the health and emotional wellbeing of international students

Mary Memarzia, Director of Student Services at Bellerbys Cambridge, reflects on how institutions can help to care for their international students’ mental health.

A recent report by YouGov states that one in four students in Britain suffer from mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. A major source of stress is their studies, with 71% of those surveyed saying that their university workload is their most pressing concern. 39% are worried about finding a job after university and 35% are concerned about their families.

These issues can become particularly acute for international students, who often battle to adjust to their new surroundings, far from home and the safety-net of friends and family. For many, adapting to a different culture, accessing a new curriculum, and communicating in a foreign language can present a far more daunting experience than they might have initially imagined. Their academic goals, whilst motivating, may not be enough to see students through these challenges and fear of failure, a common cause of anxiety, can be heightened by the pressures of expectation from home.

The quality of their study experience will not depend on the educational opportunities alone; the pastoral care and support offered to international students by their schools and colleges is also hugely important in ensuring that their time in the UK is positive, healthy, and rewarding.

At Bellerbys, we have helped students from over 45 countries adjust positively to studying abroad. Here are three effective techniques that can help universities and colleges care for their international students’ mental and emotional wellbeing – and support their academic success.

  1. Improve communication

International students can easily feel isolated and lonely. We know that when students are struggling to adapt to their new environment, they are more likely to retreat and, when faced with demanding new courses studied in a foreign language, they can end up feeling marginalised. Many students lack the complex vocabulary and linguistic nuances to navigate tricky situations. Not being understood, struggling to share in conversations, and not knowing when – or even how – to ask questions are all too common challenges that can be tiring and frustrating, affecting academic work and self-esteem.

The emotional stress of trying to fit in can manifest itself physically, with students suffering from sleep disturbance, poor concentration, headaches, and loss of appetite. Good communication is key to the overall wellbeing of these students, but is made doubly hard to achieve if students in need of support come from a culture that doesn’t encourage discussion about mental health.

Pastoral care services need to appreciate these cultural differences and understand the problems students face – addressing issues before they get out of hand. Effort needs to be made to get to know students beyond the classroom and regular check-ins should be scheduled: this will help uncover any underlying problems or concerns before it’s too late. Staff need to look out for students who are overworking, perhaps for fear of appearing weak or not meeting expectations, and step in to offer support. Events focused on mental health, such as stress management sessions, can help to open up the conversation about wellbeing.

  1. Care for the ‘whole student’

Providing care and support to international students requires an empathetic and holistic approach to wellbeing that takes into account their academic needs, as well as their physical, psychological, and emotional needs. If a student is suffering from any emotional difficulties, their academic performance will suffer too.

The YouGov report states that 47% of students who report mental health issues say that simple day-to-day tasks are difficult to complete, and 4% say they are unable to complete them at all. Emotional stress can have a big impact on academic success and adequate pastoral care is therefore a vital part of any education.

It’s also important that staff at all levels are able to support students who are battling with mental health problems. This may require specialist training to raise awareness of the issues at hand – and how to deal with them. Staff need to be attentive to the warning signs: erratic attendance, lack of participation in class, or distancing from social situations, and know how to signpost students to the support available, through referrals to GP services or trained counsellors.

Making sure that international students feel welcomed, accepted and supported is an essential ingredient of effective pastoral care, and this can be achieved in a variety of ways. It depends on everybody working together: from receptionists to tutors, caterers to residential staff, everyone has a part to play. Collaborative multi-disciplinary teams can ensure that systems are in place to support students and deliver positive teaching and learning experiences.

  1. Encourage a positive student experience

Events that allow students to introduce themselves and celebrate their culture can have a positive impact on their overall wellbeing and mental health. The rich cultural diversity of our student community has resulted in dynamic get-togethers. An international evening showcasing a myriad of local dress, language and food helped to forge strong connections between people from different backgrounds.

Enrichment activities, sports teams and student committees help create a more cohesive student community, as well as balance out some of the pressures of studying that can cause emotional instability. Whether in the stillness of a yoga class or the buzz of a sight-seeing day-trip, situations which give students the chance to develop meaningful relationships with others and the space to be themselves, are invaluable. When organised by the students themselves, social events can help instil a feeling of belonging – as well as great confidence in their abilities, both academic and social.

While our ultimate goal is to promote academic success in each of our international students, it requires much more than that to help them grow into independent, resilient young people, able to operate confidently in the world, wherever they may live and work. With the right support and care, mental health issues can be addressed, so that when students leave to embark on the next stage of their studies, they will move on feeling enriched and empowered, ready for the next round of challenges.