The research found that the pandemic had a substantial negative impact on international students, particularly those living outside of their country of origin during the pandemic.
Report authors warned that the inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic are likely to continue post-pandemic without action.
“This study demonstrated that university student mental health substantially deteriorated during the Covid-19 pandemic,” they said.
“Of note was the substantial worsening of international students’ mental health, social support, and financial security. Whilst these issues were exacerbated by the pandemic, all issues were prevalent prior to the pandemic and may well continue post-pandemic.”
“All issues were prevalent prior to the pandemic and may well continue post-pandemic”
The researchers wrote that identifying and implementing adequate preventative interventions, such as building social capital programs at universities and in the community, is “an imperative”.
“However, further on-the-ground knowledge is still required to identify effective interventions in the current climate and into the future,” they added.
The study used a cohort of 4,407 university students to assess depression, anxiety, social support, inability to afford food, fear of partner and experiences of discrimination, both pre-pandemic and during the pandemic.
Compared to local students, international students experienced an increase in probable major depression, low social support, inability to afford food, race-based discrimination and fear of partner .
“This research had one of the largest domestic and international student samples on the topic and included a comparison of scores across groups for key measures both pre-pandemic and during the pandemic, making it a particularly strong study,” Samuel McKay, research fellow in suicide prevention at Orygen, told The PIE News.
“However, it is important to note that the university where it was based was in Melbourne, Australia, which had some of the longest lockdown/stay at home orders of any city in the world. This may have exacerbated the mental health impacts on students.
“Nevertheless, the findings align with a smaller study of international students from the UK and US that found students who stayed in country during the pandemic had worse mental health outcomes, suggesting the findings may be representative of international student experiences from other locations.”
McKay said there was also already data from prior to the pandemic that international students were a vulnerable group who often experienced poor mental health but were unlikely to seek support.
“So it is unsurprising that such issues were exacerbated by the pandemic,” McKay added.
McKay explained there needs to be more research into how international students can be supported.
“Very few programs or interventions have been tested. For instance, when we reviewed the literature on international student suicide prevention programs, we found no evidence-based programs anywhere in the world,” he said.
“This means we don’t know what works and what doesn’t or where we should be focusing our resources to have the greatest impact. Importantly, any future research should include international students in the design, development, and implementation to have the greatest chance of success.”
“We don’t know what works and what doesn’t”
Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, told The PIE that the greatest challenge facing study destination countries providing mental health services is the lack of interculturally-accredited counsellors.
“Too often we hear of international students required to attend counselling sessions with Anglo Celtic background counsellors who do not understand many of the ethno-specific issues faced by students.
“Issues of sexuality, religion, gender stereotyping and family expectations are often more pervasive amongst the overseas student cohort compared to their domestic peers.”
Honeywood said that attempting to backfill mental health counselling from inadequately trained fellow student mentors can have “tragic consequences”.
“Post pandemic, Australian universities are now much more aware of the importance of making counselling a core service provision,” he added.
Universities Australia acting chief executive Peter Chesworth told The PIE that moving abroad to study is a big step for anyone and that the organisation recognises the difficulties international students sometimes face.
“Covid-19 presented new challenges. It deprived some students of the opportunity to commence their studies in-person while preventing others from returning home to see their friends and loved ones,” he said.
“Universities did everything they could to find and connect with all their students during those hard couple of years, ensuring students had access to the full range of support services they offer.
“We strongly encourage anyone struggling, at any time, to reach to their institution for the help they need.”
If you need support, help is available.
Lifeline: 131 114
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Samaritans: 116 123
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988
TalkSuicide: 1 833 456 4566