Global Engagement Solutions for Higher Education


Six Ways to Support Study Abroad Students and their Mental Health

November 2, 2020


Study abroad students may be eager to spread their wings and spend a semester in France, Australia or South Africa, but while they’re there, they may have their own mental health concerns.

In some cases, the study abroad experience can worsen lingering issues. According to the NAFSA: Association of International Educators’ report, Addressing Mental Health Issues Affecting Education Abroad Participants, common triggers include:

  • Culture shock.
  • Separation from family, friends and partners.
  • Trouble managing the transition.
  • Difficulty making new friends.
  • Dating and sexual norms in the host country.

According to Kerry Geffert, international education expert and Terra Dotta Product Evangelist, the key is to make it easy for students to access help. Here are six ways to support study abroad students and their mental health.

#1 Educate students about services

Whether it’s the campus counseling center or a third-party mental health provider, students need to know how they can access mental health services through their higher education institution. Any pre-departure orientation, of course, must include details about what students should do if they are experiencing any physical or mental health concern while abroad.

But global education leaders should also take a more proactive approach, highlighting what services are offered at times when students may be more prone to challenges. That might include the beginning of the trip when students are more likely to feel homesick or around holidays when they’re missing annual traditions and loved ones.

Around the time of those common trigger points, Geffert recommends a multipronged strategy that might include:

  • Quick email outreach to students.
  • Video conference call check-ins with students.
  • Messaging and resources to parents to watch for signs that their child is struggling.

Global education leaders should remember that it can take more than one attempt to get important messages about mental health access through to students too. Said Geffert: “Students need to hear it at pre-departure. They need to hear it at orientation. And then again they need to hear it at those times when they may be more likely to need support.”

#2 Encourage early self-disclosure

Being “forewarned is forearmed,” said Geffert. While confidentiality rules likely prevent you from having direct conversations with a student’s therapist, there are ways to encourage students to open up about any mental health issues they may have.

To prompt those conversations before they leave, share broad information with all students about general issues they may face.

In addition to details about where they’ll take classes and what their living arrangements will be, let them know whether it may be difficult to obtain specific medications or mental health services in another country. But don’t just focus on the roadblocks, which may encourage students to keep their mental health challenges to themselves. Let them know that there are ways around those obstacles. Local American consulates and American medical centers, for example, are good places to start with on-site staff who speak English.

“It’s trying to give them solutions rather than saying this is a problem,” Geffert said. “You don’t want them putting it even more underground.”

Another way to encourage self-disclosure, said Geffert, is asking open-ended questions about issues that seem to cause a student some anxiety. Be on alert, he said, for changes in their physical posture when you start talking about specific obstacles at their destination. Listen for statements that they’re not comfortable with something in particular, perhaps where they’ll live or what kind of food is common. General questions about their concerns could encourage them to open up.

#3 Work hand-in-hand with the counseling center

Every global education office should let campus counseling offices know which students plan to travel overseas, so therapists can offer support to any students they are treating.

That doesn’t mean counselors can alert the study abroad office to their patient list, but it does mean that those students who are planning a big trip can have a conversation with their therapist, who may encourage them to seek additional guidance from their study abroad advisor.

#4 Build relationships overseas

When possible, cultivate relationships with onsite staff at the institutions where you’re sending your students. Consider them your eyes and ears in the field—somebody to notify you when a student is facing academic trouble or might seem sad or lonely, Geffert said.

#5 Be mindful of underrepresented students

Some students may face particular challenges as they travel abroad because of their race, religion or sexual orientation. It’s critical, Geffert said, that home institutions provide a broad set of resources to all students. Predeparture documents should include, for example, hair salons catering to Black people, the location of the local LGBTQ+ center; public transportation stops that can accommodate wheelchairs; and places of worship for a variety of religions.

“That way students don’t have to ask and make themselves feel like the ‘special one,’” Geffert said. “You don’t have to hit every possibility, but you should let students know where they can find that information.”

#6 Consider a third-party option

Especially during the pandemic, as students went home to continue their courses online, campus counseling offices have faced questions about whether therapists can continue to treat students who may be in a different state or country. College counselors typically have licenses to practice in the state where they are located, but not elsewhere.

Hiring a third-party provider such as Morneau Shepell, with broader licensure, may be the best option for schools seeking to maintain continuity for far-flung students even after the pandemic, Geffert said.

If you do bring on a third party, however, Geffert said it’s important for institutions to collaborate with all of the appropriate offices, including counseling and student health.

“There are a host of privacy issues that have to be addressed,” he said. Those questions include when students seek support from a third-party provider, what information is reported back to the university and to whom.

As we look forward to the spring and the future of study abroad, mental health must be a focal point for everyone on college campuses, including global education leaders. Learn more about how international educators can expand their support for students in Terra Dotta's E-Book: Expanding Mental Health Support for International and Study Abroad Students