How to address mental health with international students

Student mental health is a perennial issue on college campuses, but one that has grown more acute in recent years as institutions see more and increasingly serious conditions among students. In particular, international students struggle with mental wellness and face barriers in accessing necessary resources.

Mental health is a perennial and growing challenge

Counseling centers and student affairs practitioners are well aware of the threats to student wellness on campus, and of the overwhelming demand for counseling services. The number of students who require counseling services—most often for anxiety, depression, and stress—has consistently trended upwards in recent years, and the severity of cases on campus has also increased.

The Healthy Minds Study, an annual national survey of college students on mental health issues, found that approximately 44% of respondents—almost half of students—indicated that they felt they needed mental health help in the last year. In addition, a widely-cited 2015 survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) found that 73% of counseling center directors reported an increase in the severity of student mental health concerns on their campuses in the past year.

A potentially stressful transition for all first-year college students

There are many possible reasons for the spike in mental health challenges occurring on college campuses. College is a stressful time for many students; it represents a significant life transition and exposes them to a wide range of new academic and social pressures. They are on their own—often for the first time—to manage their academic workload, develop healthy living habits, and manage new social dynamics.

Resource center: Tools to help develop your international student services

There are also new behaviors they may be engaging in—alcohol use and sexual activity, for example—that can compound the stress during this time. The pressures of trying to prepare for a successful career, meet parents’ expectations, and balance social expectations, unsurprisingly can result in anxiety, depression, and academic stress.

International students at elevated risk for mental health concerns

It should come as no surprise that international students struggle disproportionately with mental health issues, as they face additional pressures and stressors in their transition to college life. On top of the transition stressors faced by their peers, international students often have to:

  • Adjust to an entirely new culture
  • Face a language barrier that impacts their ability to communicate and connect
  • Live physically farther away from their support network of family and friends back home

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In addition, they often feel increased pressure to succeed academically based on their cultural background and the financial sacrifices their families make to allow them to study internationally.

Barriers to connecting with needed resources and support on campus

Despite these trends, many students who need help do not get it. The American College Health Association found that only 12% of students who reported suffering from significant anxiety or depression went to counseling, and minorities in general are less likely to get treatment.

International students most commonly suffer from two barriers to getting help:

  • Awareness that the resources exist
    In many countries, the broad array of support services offered on university campuses in North America simply don’t exist, so students don’t think to seek out these services on campus.
  • Stigma associated with utilizing available resources
    There are often deep cultural barriers to overcome in serving international students, depending on their country and culture of origin. Students from certain cultures are not accustomed to talking about their feelings and experiences, let alone publicly, and worry that their parents and families may not approve of them seeking help. Others are reluctant to admit that they’re experiencing difficulties, perceiving it as a failure when they are accustomed to being seen as high achievers.

Additional resources to support international students on campus

Our study Supporting International Students on Campus provides proven strategies to reach international students with mental health resources and address barriers—including awareness and stigma—that prevent students from connecting with necessary, and sometimes life-saving, resources. Read the full study

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Supporting International Students on Campus

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