1 in 4 students experience mental health issues in the UK, according to a survey of students by YouGov. For international students, being away from home, experiencing a different culture and possibly speaking in a different language can have added pressure.
Over the past three years we have funded a number of institutions and students’ unions to run pilot projects or research to improve the international student experience in the UK.
A number of these relate to mental health and include useful insights and recommendations for the sector. To celebrate and promote University Mental Health Day, we've provided an overview of the key findings. Each of the reports is available to download, or you can get in touch with us for hard copies of the 2015-16 or 2016-17 reports.
1. Reaching out to enhance the wellbeing of international students. Are university counselling and wellbeing services accessible and inclusive?
The University of Plymouth conducted research to explore why more international students weren’t using their counselling service. The university used questionnaires, focus groups of international students and a four-week project group of international and home students to explore ways to support and enhance wellbeing.
Full findings can be found within the report. They include:
- The most agreed-with reason for not using the counselling service was the belief that “I should be able to sort out my problems by myself”. This belief was stronger amongst undergraduates than postgraduate students
- Students who feel better are more likely to be willing to go to their academic tutor, and those who feel worse are more likely to look online for support
- Students for whom it was their first time living overseas were more likely to cite difficulties with language, worries about the counsellor thinking badly of them and not maintaining confidentiality as barriers to seeing a university counsellor than those who had lived overseas before
The project groups went some way in breaking down emotional barriers. Home and international students were inspired to challenge stigma around counselling and promote the message ‘it’s OK not to be OK.’
Read the full report for findings and recommendations to learn from the research.
2. Bounce back: enhancing emotional and mental wellbeing
The University of Sunderland found that international students weren’t engaging with the Student Wellbeing Service. Those who did engage cited a lack of awareness of the presence on campus and an initial reluctance to engage due to preconceptions of the service as well as not considering themselves to have emotional or mental health difficulties.
A number of international students cited culturally different perspectives of mental health, creating barriers to engagement and support while studying in the UK.
The University of Sunderland built on the University of Plymouth research and used UKCISA funding to run a pilot project to raise awareness of mental health issues and the wellbeing service. Workshops featured as culture shock, homesickness, basic stress and anxiety awareness, how to seek support, building resilience and mindfulness. These enabled international students to talk openly and learn coping strategies. The team also created leaflets, posters and a targeted website to promote their services.
Following their project, the University of Sunderland created recommendations for other institutions and students’ unions to run similar schemes. These include working with international students to improve awareness of your wellbeing services. They will know how best to reach other international students. Suggestions also include working closely with students’ union societies.
If you’d like to run any similar workshops to get international students talking about and aware of mental health issues, the links to presentations can be found at the end of the report, as well as recommendations to run your own classes.
3. Family support: implications for the academic resilience of international students
Sheffield Hallam University and charity Stand Alone explored the role that family support plays for international students. In particular, looking at what forms of family support international students use during their studies and the impact the distance from family has on emotional and social wellbeing and/or feelings of connection and estrangement?
The full findings are in the report. There are some key points that are useful for the sector to be aware of:
- Sustaining and maintaining family commitments could be a considerable struggle for international students. Many students were still expected to support other family members from distance. Such support included both financial and emotional contributions. For some students this led to excessive pressure, particularly around exam periods.
- The desire not to be a burden to the family. This was particularly important where parents were elderly, were not affluent, or were experiencing personal or family difficulties. Many students spoke of not feeling able to share their own concerns in these circumstances.
- One student said: “Loneliness is a new feeling. Living in a house full of people and suddenly on your own has definitely had a toll on me emotionally to my surprise. After a two month depression phase where I struggled to study and focus, I have overcome it for the most part thankfully.”
Read the full report with recommendations for other universities to learn from this research.
We have a number of pilot projects and research focusing on mental health and wellbeing which will complete this year. These are:
The University of Edinburgh
Research into mental health and wellbeing of global access students
Project about mindfulness for international students
‘This Is Me’ a project involving guest lectures for international learners to share cultural and religious experiences with other learners
As soon as we have their reports they’ll be added to our resource library.