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Student “brave spaces” needed to promote wellness

IIE, in collaboration with the AIFS Foundation, highlighted the importance of mental health and wellbeing within the international education sector in a new report.
July 21 2023
2 Min Read

The Institute for International Education and the AIFS Foundation are highlighting the importance of mental health and wellbeing within the international education sector.

Through a recent report entitled, Mental Health and Well-Being in International Education: Reflections on Providing Support for Students and Administrators, along with a related webinar on the topic, the organisations have joined forces to underscore ongoing concerns and offer recommendations to better support students and administrators.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, promoting awareness of student mental health issues and providing enhanced supports has taken on a heightened sense of significance on campus communities and within the international education sector at large.

Leah Mason, IIE’s research, evaluation and learning team lead told The PIE, “IIE and the AIFS Foundation are committed to raising awareness around mental health and well-being within the international education community”.

Mason added that the research “emphasises that the attention brought to mental health and wellbeing through the Covid-19 pandemic has led to the expansion of proactive practices, tools, and resources, which can have life-changing outcomes for students, enabling them to participate in international exchanges.”

The joint report was based on a series of interviews of staff from IIE, AIFS, and HEIs in the US. The findings were triangulated with recent research on international exchange students, such as the Open Doors report on international students with disabilities.

Mason and co-author, IIE consultant, Sarah Ingraham, indicated key findings as belonging to the central categories of support for students and support for administrators.

Regarding support for students, study participants indicated the need for more proactive responses, including promoting well-being as a core component of exchange programs early on. They noted this can be achieved by having prominent resources on program and university websites, in orientations and during program activities.

They also stressed the critical nature of effective communication with study abroad students, including frequent check-ins, in-person engagement and creating a “brave space” for disclosure.

The findings indicated the most significant barrier for students was the stigma that mental health issues often carry. As such, recommendations from the report suggested maintaining an assets-based approach.

“While it may be difficult for students to disclose their mental health and well-being needs during pre-departure, respondents recommended garnering trust and condemning stigma from the outset to foster open, honest dialogue before the student departs to their study abroad location, whether that is the US or abroad.”

The report and corresponding webinar also addressed supports IE administrators need to address student mental health concerns as well as their own wellness needs.

“A commitment to sharing best practices, comparing both successes and challenges, is vital to the future of our field”

Mason told The PIE, “Our commitment extends beyond students to support the advisors and practitioners, who work across their organisation with health care professionals and others, and ensure we recognise the critical role their wellbeing plays in program success by providing them with training and resources.”

Recommendations from both interview respondents and webinar panellists suggested that administrators should establish boundaries regarding the way in which they support students’ mental health and wellbeing.

This includes enlisting the assistance of mental health experts instead of having administrators take on those roles themselves. As well, more training for administrators on addressing student mental health concerns was warranted.

The theme of integrated support was also emphasised. “When all offices, departments or units serving international students studying abroad can collaborate, this significantly streamlines efforts, creates more robust networks and strengthens the support provided,” the authors asserted.

“In a time where offices and organisations are being asked to ‘do more with less’, I am personally trying to ask questions, be curious, and to reach out to check in, learn, and stay connected with colleagues,” Kelly Holland, VP of institutional partnerships at AIFS, added.

“A commitment to sharing best practices, comparing both successes and challenges, is vital to the future of our field.”

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