However, amid these rising numbers, mental health experts cautioned that there were scores more students who were also suffering, yet who were not reporting their symptoms, seeking treatment, or accessing resources.
Moreover, even pre-pandemic, international students have been historically more disposed to mental health issues than their domestic peers, particularly regarding feelings of loneliness and isolation. In addition, many international students experience difficulty navigating the complex medical systems of a host country, while others do not believe they are eligible to receive treatment or fear they will be unable to pay for services rendered. In many cultures, there is a stigma attached to mental health that students are keen to avoid.
Nebus Kitessa is a rising sophomore at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an international student from Ethiopia.
“A major problem for students is not really knowing what mental illness feels like”
She told The PIE News that there are numerous campus resources for mental health at MIT, about which, information is often made available. However, she believes “a major problem for students is not really knowing what mental illness feels like.” She also referenced the stigma some international students associate with accessing mental health services and said many are concerned with being considered “mentally ill”.
As such, there has been a heightened call at higher education institutions for staff to initiate contact with international students proactively, to share information about the mental health resources available on campus.
Director of clinical services for GeoBlue, Elizabeth Rowe, presents about the intersection of international education and mental health and also advocates for preemptive outreach. In addition, she urges students to be vocal about their needs.
Rowe told The PIE, “One of the most important things is to be proactive. If you are getting ready to travel abroad, be as candid as possible by identifying what medications you’re on, what specialists you might need to see, and what you, in particular, find supportive.
“That may help school administrators identify resources, as, if people know about these needs, they can ensure the appropriate supports are in place.”
Rowe also praised the increased access to telehealth that resulted from the pandemic. “It has opened a door that I think will be here forever. And that’s a good thing.”
Also a proponent of telehealth, Daniel Upchurch, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Alabama A & M University, combined telehealth, technology, and mental health support to create a “telemental” health app. Using the app, called Positivity+, students can schedule sessions with a licensed therapist.
Upchurch and a computer scientist colleague created the app, after having become increasingly concerned about the stressors that befall many post-secondary students.
Compounding these stressors are barriers to accessing mental health services faced by many students, Upchurch told The PIE. He said trust, consistency, and scheduling constitute some of the major barriers.
“Many students are looking for someone they can talk to who they trust”
“Many students are looking for someone they can talk to who they trust. They need it to work with their schedule. And they need consistency,” he added.
Other barriers to accessing mental health support on campus for some students are cultural and linguistic. Thus, in addition to calling on staff and students to exercise preemptive measures to promote wellness, there is also a push for those who provide services on campus to attend to students’ needs in a culturally responsive manner.
Synetta Cowsette is a mental health counselor who teaches Psychology at Harris-Stowe State University. She spoke with The PIE about the importance of training mental health providers in culturally responsive practices.
“Cultural competency is necessary for mental health providers to better understand the various populations with whom they work,” Cowsette asserted. “Due to difficulties, including unfamiliar academic systems, legal status, lack of family support, and language barriers faced by many students, MHPs should receive cultural competence training to improve their knowledge, understanding, and skills about working with diverse populations.”
IEAA senior fellow and student wellbeing expert, Helen Forbes-Mewitt, told The PIE Review in 2021 that the sector “tends to look at international students as a homogenous group”. More targeted support for specific groups and individuals is needed, she said.
As HEIs prepare for the predicted influx international students due, in part, to post-pandemic pent-up demand for international programming, as well as to lockdown fatigue, many MHPs and wellness advocates are waiting to see how, and the extent to which, they will meet the moment.