The ‘Mental Wellbeing Survey of Prospective International and Overseas Students’ report, released by insurance provider Bupa and QS Enrolments Solutions, found the more than 12,000 respondents were twice as likely to experience very low life satisfaction and are at a higher risk or suffering from depression than Australian adults.
“It’s taking an at-risk [group] and putting them in a pressure cooker situation”
“There was a real lack of evidence-based published data available for this group of people, which is surprising given how important international students,” explained Bupa Australia’s national manager, research & analytics Adrian Tomyn.
“There is some evidence, particularly anecdotal evidence, that they are a risk group. We need to come from an evidence-base; if you don’t understand a group of people, what those needs are, and the quantity of those needs, you’re in trouble.”
Based on QS Enrolment Solutions’ pre-departure International Student Survey, the report particularly identified prospective students as twice as vulnerable to depression.
Tomyn said international students were likely to be at a higher risk than Australians due to less fortunate socio-economic circumstances in their home countries.
“The socio-demographic and political circumstances can pre-dispose people and citizens within those countries to a greater level of challenge than what we experience here in Australia,” he said.
“When a group of people experience challenge and adversity in higher numbers, then we naturally expect to see a greater incidence of mental health problems.”
Speaking with The PIE News, Tomyn added depression and mental health concerns often carry a stigma in many countries, which had implications for lowered ability to identify potential risk factors or to allow students to discuss and seek assistance.
The report measured trait negative affects, normal human emotions such as loneliness, stress, anxiety and pressure to succeed, finding significant proportions scored high in each category, which Tomyn said contributed to depression and low life satisfaction risks.
“If you take a group of people that are scoring high on trait negative affects and put them in a challenging circumstance, such as studying and living in another country, then we can expect that these risks will manifest even more poorly,” he said.
“It’s taking an at-risk [group], putting them in a pressure cooker situation, stripping them of their social resources and other resources such as familiarity.
“That’s why we’re seeing and having a lot of conversations with our educational partners about high proportions of students on campus that are really struggling.”
“There was a real lack of evidence-based published data available for this group of people”
Level of study and age saw all traits diminish, dropping more than 15 points in some cases from ages 16-18 to those aged over 36 years, and nine points from foundation programs to postgraduate research.
Tomyn said the drops likely indicated older students and more qualified students more had strong personal relationships and had already established their career, noting other studies showed money and relationships as the two most important buffers for mental wellbeing.
While trait negative effects subsided, pressure to succeed remained the most significant factor across ages and levels of study, with one in three indicating high or extreme levels of pressure before even choosing were they to study.
The findings are an important reminder for universities and institutions to be mindful of their international student cohorts and the mental health risks they experience, Tomyn said, pointing to their impact on attrition rates and other academic issues.
Among its recommendations, the report suggested boosting students understanding and use of mental health services, a greater focus on interventionist techniques, a mental health first aid certificate for teaching staff, and further research into mental wellbeing.
Mental wellbeing has become a talking point within international education, with the release of several apps and programs to address the issue, including NauMai NZ from Education New Zealand recently.