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Better targeting of mental health support is needed for international students 

  • 1 July 2022
  • By Iain Brennan

On Thursday 7 July, HEPI is hosting a webinar to launch its new report on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller access to higher education. Book your free place here.

This blog was kindly contributed by Iain Brennan, College Services Director, University of York IPC (Kaplan).

The mental health of our university students received welcome attention last month with Government announcements, a key appointment and several important publications. UK Universities Minister, the Rt Hon Michelle Donelan, announced a scheme to bring together university, NHS and mental health services in regional partnerships so all students can get the help they need with their mental health. At HEPI’s annual conference, Donelan also announced the appointment of Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University Professor Edward Peck to the newly created role of student support champion. Peck will be supporting the sector in sharing best practices and promoting new initiatives.  

These developments address the serious and growing problem of student mental ill-health, and not a moment too soon. Earlier this month, the 2022 Student Academic Experience Survey by HEPI and Advance HErevealed that loneliness and anxiety levels among university students are high, with one in four of all students surveyed saying they feel lonely all or most of the time. And the most common reason students give for not continuing their courses is their mental health. While worrying, none of this is surprising.

Now, a new report by the UK’s higher education mental health charity Student Minds, Understanding Student Mental Health Inequalities: International Students, brings this focus to a population of students we don’t know enough about and which presents unique challenges to developing effective ways of understanding and providing support. 

According to the Student Minds report, fewer international students self-reported mental health issues than UK-domiciled students, yet at the beginning of the academic year, these students said that they felt a heightened sense of anxiety about a range of issues compared to UK-domiciled students. Community, relationships and belonging were important areas of concern for international students, with making friends, keeping up socially with friends, loneliness, and dating and romantic relationships all causing more concern for international students than UK-domiciled students. 

In contrast to their reluctance to disclose mental health issues, international students reported a higher level of preference than their UK-domiciled counterparts for accessing university and students’ union services. But this appetite for support contrasted with their lower levels of actual engagement with the support on offer, suggesting that the way conversations around mental health take place and the language used to conceptualise mental health issues could be critical in understanding the experience of international students.  

Another factor affecting international students’ mental health is their struggle to engage with the norms and expectations of ‘student life’ in the UK, including the culture around drinking alcohol and clubbing, behaviour in communal living spaces, and engagement in extracurricular activities. Many described a misalignment between how they want to spend their time at university and what are perceived as normal aspects of student life. 

Challenges relating to the academic experience of international students included frustrations felt around value for money and the conflict caused by differing tuition fees for international and UK-domiciled students; keeping up with other students when English wasn’t their first language (not because conversations are not understood but because it takes time to process information when it is not in your first language); and managing the pressure from family to perform well academically and live up to their expectations  when many are using their family’s life savings to finance their studies.

And, crucially, global events – whether a political development, natural disaster, or war – that happen elsewhere in the world can be a personal catastrophe for an international student. Discussions held as part of the Student Minds research revealed that international students were disappointed by how little some university staff understood about the global events impacting them.

As an international crisis develops, higher education institutions need to take a proactive, targeted approach to wellbeing support for international students. It’s critical that the response is fast, tailored to the circumstances, and ongoing. A crisis can have a long-term impact on those affected and it is important that the event is not forgotten as news headlines move on.

In the Student Minds report, international students shared their ideas for actions that helped them with their mental health, which included creating positive routines like exercising daily and using students’ union groups and supporting their buddying schemes.  

Not only do international students make a significant positive contribution to the UK economy (with a £28.8 billion net economic benefit to the UK of the 2018/19 intake of international students), but they also make our universities and communities richer, more tolerant and more interesting places to be for all students. Yet the significance of their contribution is not reflected in our policymaking to support student mental health. We need to do more to understand the mental health issues and challenges of our international students and include them more explicitly in our mental health policies, initiatives and programmes.

Book your place for the webinar on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller access to higher education here.

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