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International students and mental health: Understanding the issues

Sonder Safe   |   Nov 19, 2019 1:09:16 PM

When a 2019 report by the Victorian Coroner found that international students are at greater risk of suicide than their domestic counterparts, the Council of International Students Australia was prompted to urge students to open up about their mental health.

What can education providers do to encourage international students to seek treatment over their mental health concerns? 

A report on international students and mental health published by the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) provides some key insights and recommendations. 

The report found that mental health and psychological stress is now one of the leading concerns faced by international students in Australia. It presents three sets of factors known to influence the mental health of international students: 


  • Unfamiliar academic environment, English language challenges, modes of teacher/student interaction
  • Living off-campus when coming from a restrictive background and unaccustomed to independence, daily practices including cooking, budgeting, cleaning, managing a household, relationships and undertaking employment
  • A reluctance to seek help due to cultural perceptions, help-seeking delays associated with stigma, fear of ‘losing face’ or reputation or disclosing personal information 

The last point - that stigma can result in a reluctance to seek help -  is of particular note, as the Council of International Students has identified it as perhaps the biggest concern for their representees in regards to mental health.

Cultural taboos prevent some students from seeking help

The Victorian Coroner’s report found that failing grades were a factor in 10 out of the 27 international student suicides it investigated. It suggests the primary fear of five of these students was disclosing this “failure” to their parents, while another three feared that their student visas would not be renewed.

Students may see failing grades as a result of personal deficiencies or a lack of hard work, rather than looking at ways to manage stress.

Students can put immense pressure on themselves to excel academically, and this, combined with meeting high family expectations, can lead to psychological distress. 

Even when others around them notice this distress, the fear of being stigmatised or looked down upon can hold students back from seeking help. 

Many international students in Australian come from cultural backgrounds where mental health is a taboo subject. They may harbour fears about appearing “weak” or being shamed by their families if a mental disorder comes to light. 

An inability to communicate about their mental wellbeing due to a language barrier can also be a factor in help-seeking delays.

How education providers can help break the stigma

English Australia’s Guide to Best Practice in International Student Mental Health makes a number of recommendations. Among them are:

Promoting mental health awareness and services online and on-campus
Channels for promotion could include:

  • Posters, pamphlets and brochures
  • Electronic platforms such as the Learning Management System (LMS) or social media platforms
  • Global and targeted e-mails, especially during high stress periods eg. exam time
  • Student mentors or student leaders
  • Communication channels within student residences
  • Special events such as Mental Health Week and RU OK Day
  • Class curricula on mental health awareness and stress management

Staff training and awareness
Outline clear processes and training for staff, including:

  • Providing staff with access to information that gives them a sound awareness of mental illness, including warning signs and indicators, likely effects on study and information to help dispel myths and support students with mental illness
  • Providing the opportunity for staff to complete Mental Health First Aid training
  • Developing clear protocols for staff to follow if they suspect a student is having trouble with mental health issues

Healthy lifestyle promotion
Offer inclusive activities which encourage social engagement and physical activity. These proactive measures can lessen the impact and incidence of stressors like loneliness and isolation, homesickness, academic pressure, difficulties with independent living, struggles with LGBTQI issues and addiction.

Better availability and provision of mental health services
Institutions should be able to directly provide short-term mental health services to students, or be able to quickly refer students to external providers. This should include providers, where available, who can offer guidance or treatment in languages other than English.

Providing access to Sonder’s multilingual safety and support network can be an integral part of your strategy to reduce the impact of mental illness in student communities. All Sonder’s support staff are Mental Health First Aid trained and work with mental health organisations to refer those in need to the appropriate services. 

If you would like to discuss partnering with Sonder, please contact us at: info@sondersafe.com

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