Preserving the mental health of international students during national lockdown

“Open, transparent and clear communication with families is critical – now more than ever”


“These are unsettling times for adults, let alone international students far from home. It’s our responsibility to step up and provide them with the support they need to make it through this crisis and come out on the other side feeling happy and healthy,” writes Sarah Bakhtiari, co-principal and director of Welfare at Bellerbys College Brighton.

With Britain’s schools closed indefinitely, many international students are left stranded by travel restrictions or national lockdowns. While these students remain in the UK, institutions have a duty of care to them. At Bellerbys, we’re currently looking after 135 international students, aged between fourteen and eighteen, who are unable to return home. Here’s how we’re approaching their mental health and wellbeing.

Cultural approaches to mental health

In the UK, we’ve made excellent progress in discussing mental health more openly, but it remains taboo in many cultures. For instance, a recent survey of over 3,500 people in India revealed that 60% believed that mentally unhealthy people should be segregated to avoid contaminating healthy people. This sort of stigma means that some international students are less inclined to disclose any anxieties they’re currently experiencing.

Every member of staff must be trained to recognise signs of poor mental health in international students so that issues can be identified and managed early. Our team of residential, catering, maintenance, cleaning, welfare, and security staff, in addition to our student services staff, exercise constant vigilance to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of the students in our care. Students can also access a telephone counselling service with a qualified counsellor at any time.

Closed community

One element of maintaining normalcy is to allow young students to safely continue friendships. These relationships and support systems play a vital role in mental health and overcoming loneliness. Early on, we decided to make our school a closed community in the interest of our students’ safety. This means that our students do not leave the college grounds and do not come into contact with the public. The closed nature of our community allows students to spend time with each other in the same way as the Government recommends a family unit can live together under one roof.

“One element of maintaining normalcy is to allow young students to safely continue friendships”

Open, transparent and clear communication with families is critical – now more than ever. We offer translations for parents who do not speak English, either over the phone or by email. Parents are grateful that we prioritise working with them, and we’re doing everything we can to alleviate their anxiety.

Keeping students active

Another vital aspect of supporting students is allowing them to maintain a sense of purpose and achievement. Personal development needs to be a key aspect of the curriculum since it provides students with the confidence and soft skills they need – both in the classroom and beyond.

At Bellerbys, we’ve adopted circuit training, stretching classes, and boxing – largely exercises with limited contact – but we’re also organising art classes, international nights, and bingo and quiz evenings to name but a few. In our experience, it’s well worth the time and effort to put together a varied timetable that helps keep children’s minds off uncertainties – especially during long breaks.

Getting through uncertain times together

We must all come together at this difficult time and ask ourselves what we can do to help others. We’ve donated PPE to the NHS, as well as giving leftover hot meals to a local homeless shelter twice a day. Our students are also writing to local vulnerable elderly people to help alleviate loneliness. These acts of kindness maintain a sense of purpose and wellbeing for students as well as improving the lives of others.

Ultimately, this is an unnerving time for anyone, let alone a young student far from their family and home country. It is more crucial now than ever that they continue to feel supported, that they understand that there is no stigma around mental health, and that they are fully engaged in college life.

About the author:  Sarah Bakhtiari is co-principal and director of Welfare at Bellerbys College Brighton.