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Kate Smart, IES Abroad & Jordi Austin, University of Sydney

As the number of international students increases around the world, so do the number of students who have or develop a mental wellbeing concern. The PIE News spoke to Kate Smart, Sydney centre Director at IES Abroad, and Jordi Austin, University of Sydney student support services director, about the challenges Australian providers are facing and what is being done to address the issue.


Photo: The PIE NewsPhoto: The PIE News

"What we do within mobility is try and make sure they've got extra support outside the classroom and outside of our organisations"

The PIE: What challenges are international student facing with their mental wellbeing?

Jordi Austin: There is, and there has been for the last five years, an increasing awareness of the importance of holistic student development, and that studying abroad as an international student is hard. There’s a lot of challenges that you need to encounter and grapple with early on in your candidacy, and that can’t come at the expense of things that we would see as usual developmental trajectory challenges for students entering into the tertiary sector.

There’s growing awareness within the sector that we need to help and scaffold student learning in all of those spaces such that they are feeling that they made a good choice, that they belong, that there are people out there to help them navigate a complex landscape.

All of those things, once you’ve got that working well, help you to feel happier, to feel connected, and to feel that you’ve really set themselves up for success.

The PIE: What work is being done by providers to address mental wellbeing?

“There’s a very wide spectrum of support that we can provide to people and getting them to understand where they are on that spectrum”

JA: There’s a lot of programs that people are doing. Monash University is doing an amazing program around Australian English competency that gives international students an opportunity to partner with other international and local students and go through a 12-week course. That enables them to feel more comfortable and confident speaking up in tutorials, in saying hello and making friends, and joining social activities. [It] helps them feel settled and connected.

There are a lot of people who are really engaging a lot more in the social and culture space. The University of New South Wales has got a Learn to Swim program.

We know [during] the lead into the exams, a lot of people are feeling isolated and lonely, so how do we get them to come out and join in stress-buster activities? Help them feel that they’re still connected with the broader university and people actually care about them. That’s really important.

The PIE: With the Australian English and Learn to Swim programs, can Australia’s culture be alienating at times, not just for Asian students, but also students from other English speaking countries?

Kate Smart: Absolutely. The issue that study abroad students are often having is they’re not looking for difference. Once they get here, they’re quite surprised by the fact that they’re going into a completely different academic system, a completely different system for support than they’re used to at home where there is a little more of a culture of hand-holding in the smaller institutions.

“In exam season, a lot of people are feeling lonely, so how do we get them to join stress-buster activities? Help them feel connected”

The PIE: How do Australian institutions tackle those who have already identified with a mental health concern, such as anxiety or depression, back home?

KS: Those that are already enrolling as full-degree, we try and make sure they engage with our support services available and disability support for academic and outside support. It’s just trying to make sure they know that they exist.

From a study abroad perspective, given that they are just with us for a short amount of time, we have organisations like IES Abroad that are able to work with their home school to see what sort of accommodations they get as a result of their established mental health need. Then we work with disability support structures in each of the partner institutions that we work with.

The biggest problem that we have is getting them to ask, because everybody will always think that if they put that in their application or identify as that before being accepted into a program that they’ll be disadvantaged against. It’s just trying to make sure that we’re just here for support not here for judgement.

JA: There’s a lot of research suggesting mental health symptomatology is on the rise globally, and that’s something that we’ve been tracking very carefully for a number of years through ANZSSA and a number of different research projects that we’ve done. It’s a consistent pattern.

“Sometimes the medications that you may have available to you, particularly in the US, are not available or not affordable in Australia”

But there’s got to be a tipping point at which, if you have 50% of your student cohort saying that at any given time they’re experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or stress, that’s normal. What we need to think about then is if this is something that the vast majority of our students are grappling with, it’s less of a mental health diagnosis and more of an adaptive challenge.

The PIE: There is seasonal affective disorder where poor weather can impact mental wellbeing, but for Australia, it’s very different. There are stories that a lot of students will come to Australia see the sun’s out and decide they don’t need their medication. Is there anything being done to prevent “sun syndrome”?

KS: What we do within mobility is try and make sure they’ve got extra support outside the classroom and outside of our organisations. Getting them involved in sports and activities; making sure that they’re getting into clubs and societies; and particularly my organisation is very much about getting them to focus on what their goals are as part of them coming to study in Australia.

They focus on that, so if they go off their medication because it’s so fun and the beach looks beautiful and Sydney’s such a fun place to live, they look to their goals and they realise that that’s a shifting sand and they’re not going to get there within a six-month period.

JA: Sometimes it’s not necessarily that the person has deliberately come off their medication because the sun is shining and everything looks amazing. Sometimes it’s the fact of actually travelling. Maybe your body rhythms are out of synch because you’ve got jetlag and what you used to take in the morning you now have to take at night and that throws your whole cycle of medication out.

Sometimes the medications that you may have available to you, particularly in the US, are not available or not affordable here. There is a transition around understanding the Australian healthcare system and how you access it to support you health and wellbeing.

The PIE: What additional work needs to be done in the future to help students both full-degree and study abroad?

KS: We have a very big cultural challenge with some of our cohorts that we work with, definitely not in the study abroad perspective and definitely not with my Americans – they know how to seek that assistance and they totally validate everything that is mental health. But there are still some cohorts internationally that do not believe that mental health concerns exist and it is quite an affront if we make someone who is unwell go home.

There’s a big challenge that we have within cross-cultural environments to make sure that everybody is supported if it does get to the point that it is quite difficult.

JA: I don’t think all cultures have the same approach to mental health, and I’ve heard some stories where there are people from particular cultures where any sort of mental health difficulty is really frowned upon and still highly stigmatised. You can understand people’s reticence to come forward and say that they’re struggling, because in their home country that would mean something quite disastrous would happen to them or their family.

We need to say ‘you’re in Australia now, we understand this differently; we talk about this differently; there are things that you can do to make you more fit for study here’.

It’s not that you’ve told me you’re sick, you’re now going to hospital. There’s a very wide spectrum of support that we can provide to people and getting them to understand where they are on that spectrum.

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