Global Engagement Solutions for Higher Education


Supporting International Students and Scholars and their Mental Health

October 5, 2020


International students suffer from many of the same mental health challenges as their U.S. counterparts. One study published in 2010 in the Journal of American College Health found that 44% of international graduate students said they had an emotional or stress-related problem that had significantly affected their well-being or academic performance in the previous 12 months. The study highlighted the unmet mental health needs among international graduate students and that they were less likely to seek treatment from campus counseling services.

Serving international students requires an understanding of not only their stressors, but why they are reluctant to get help. Here are five ways to support international students.

#1 Be aware of cultural hesitation

International students may be wary of accessing mental health resources for a variety of reasons. For some, failure isn’t an option — and admitting they need help may feel like failure to them or make them fearful they’ll get sent home. For others, mental health access isn’t common in their home country or communities.

International students may be reluctant to even walk into a campus counseling center, and that makes anonymity critical, Kerry Geffert, international education expert and Terra Dotta Product Evangelist, said. Robust third-party mental health platforms can help, allowing students to dial in to support through an app and access counselors who speak their own language and understand their culture.

Those cultural connections are critical. The lack of opportunities for students to get support from people who understand their culture is one of the biggest barriers to seeking therapy, Lee Swain, Director of Program Development for The JED Foundation, said during a recent Terra Dotta webinar.

It’s not uncommon for a student to worry, said Swain, that a counselor “may not understand my exact situation or I just feel more comfortable talking about feelings in my native language.”

#2 Know the triggers

Just like study abroad students, international students also can face higher levels of mental health challenges during specific times of year. Those include holidays in their home country, but also in the United States. Thanksgiving is one U.S. holiday that can be particularly rough for international students as campuses empty out.

To help head off any loneliness or depression during those times, Geffert recommends reaching out to them and also providing an alternative. When he worked at a university in Oklahoma, Geffert’s office held banquet-style Thanksgiving meals, complete with about 20 turkeys, that introduced international students to the American holiday and kept them engaged and involved.

#3 Build relationships

Any international student orientation should include a representative from the counseling center who can explain what they do. But you’re not one and done with that introduction.

“It’s going to require multiple touches,” Geffert said.

Help the counseling center leaders get to know campus international student groups. If you’re attending a student group banquet, invite somebody from the counseling office or health services with you. Encourage the counseling office to help sponsor the group’s activities or speak at regular meetings about the services they offer.

“It helps build that connection,” Geffert said. “It helps students to feel like, ‘My international student advisor trusts this person, so I think I can trust them.’”

Swain said some college campuses even embed counselors in international student support offices. “It’s presented in a way that’s not potential therapy or ongoing mental health support, but a support person that happens to be in a space that I’m normally in and that might reduce a barrier to getting somebody to go to a counseling center,” he said.

#4 Spark peer-to-peer conversations

The JED Foundation encourages counseling centers to recruit a diverse staff, so they can best meet the needs of all students. It can be difficult if not impossible to have your counseling staff reflect the exact makeup of your campus.

If you have international students who have sought support through the counseling center or U.S. students from a culturally diverse background, encourage them, when appropriate, to share their experience with their peers.

“We’re big proponents of storytelling and thinking through success stories from culturally diverse students, who can share how counseling was helping for them in a way that their peers can relate to,” Swain said.

#5 Emphasize internationalization

As campus leaders look for ways to ensure international students get the support they need, Geffert said it’s another reminder of the importance of internationalization—building a campus community where all students of all cultures and backgrounds are considered from the start.

“It’s not how we work with separate groups of individuals,” he said. “It’s something that has to permeate across the board in day-to-day life on the campus.”

In other words, it’s important to reach out to students, but it’s also vital to build systems and infrastructure on your campus where the unique needs of all students are considered.

“While it’s important to collaborate, there should also be the expectation set by leadership on a campus that all offices will be attuned to these issues,” Geffert said. “Not everybody has to know everything, but we need to raise the bar of expectations for everyone.”

As the pandemic continues, mental health must be a focal point for everyone on college campuses, including global education leaders. Learn more about how international student and scholar offices can expand mental health support in Terra Dotta's E-Book: Expanding Mental Health Support for International and Study Abroad Students