At Kaplan, we believe in the power of an international education to change students’ lives for the better. We’re committed to offering everybody the opportunity to study abroad; however, we recognise that there are barriers preventing some students from following their dreams.
We want to break down those barriers. One that has become increasingly important is mental ill health, which is why we’re a corporate partner of Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity. With support from Kaplan, they’ve released a report detailing the unique challenges that international students face, and how we can all support them to ensure they are able to reach their full potential.
The report and why it matters
Starting university is a big change. You have to adapt to a new routine and new teaching methods, while learning to become more independent too.
All of this can be a lot to get used to! That’s why we’re pleased that there has been more open discussion of mental health and wellbeing in higher education settings over the last few years, and lots of support systems put in place too.
However, from culture shock to language barriers, it’s clear that international students can face different challenges to UK students. Now, Student Minds has produced a comprehensive report on just this topic: Understanding Student Mental Health Inequalities: International Students.
Through specially commissioned research, international student panels and case studies, and reviewing existing literature, the authors analysed international students’ experiences with mental health at university. The report identifies key areas in which the higher education sector can improve support for international students, such as by paying attention to the language used to signpost mental health services.
The key issues affecting international students’ mental health
Adjusting to life in a new country with a different culture can be stressful for some students. For example, social norms in the UK like clubbing and drinking alcohol might be unfamiliar or undesirable to students from some regions, making it feel harder to fit in at university.
It’s no surprise then, that the report found that making and maintaining new friendships and feeling accepted in their new community were among the biggest concerns for international students.
Other students reported worries like keeping up with conversations in English, pressure from their family to perform well academically, and feeling like international tuition fees — which are more expensive than the fees for home students — still provide good value for money.
Finally, global events such as wars, natural disasters and political upheaval can all negatively affect emotional wellbeing. Some students also expressed frustration at their institutions not being aware of events happening in other parts of the world.
The importance of language
One of the most important findings of the report was that terms such as “mental health”, “wellbeing” and “counselling” may not be understood by all students. This fact was also highlighted by Kaplan’s Iain Brennan in his blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute, Better targeting of mental health support is needed for international students.
For example, researchers discovered that international students reported higher rates of satisfaction with their life and fewer instances of mental ill health than UK students. However, those same students also had higher levels of anxiety around a number of issues to do with their emotions and wellbeing.
There was a similar contrast when it came to accessing university services. International students were more likely to express an interest in using their institution’s mental health support services than domestic students, but were far less likely to actually engage with those services.
One student told the international students’ panel that they were confused about which services were on offer at their university and how to access them. They said this was because they weren’t sure what “counselling” meant:
“I didn’t know what counselling is, no one considers what mental health is properly. Important to explain what all these things are, have different pathways.”
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This suggests that companies in the higher education industry may need to change the way they talk about mental health and how they direct students towards support services. Different cultures can have a different understanding of what mental health involves, and a different way of talking about it — institutions need to take this into account in order to clearly communicate their message to all students.
How we’re supporting international students’ mental health
There was plenty of cause for optimism in the report. The research suggests that rather than a lack of support for international students, the main issue is a lack of effective communication. This is surely a problem that can be addressed, and something that Kaplan will be considering in our colleges and study centres going forward.
Student Minds also had some useful suggestions for improving the international student experience.
To help international students settle into the UK, the report suggested that higher education institutions arrange social events to help new students make friends, and assist them with practical things like registering with a doctor. This is something that our partner universities already do, and something that Kaplan also does across our colleges with Welcome Week.
Other helpful suggestions in the report include having a clear first point of contact who students can go to when they are unsure how to access services directly. In Kaplan colleges, this would be the College Services team.
The report also emphasised that it was important to make sure that student support services were advertised to students throughout at least the first term of the academic year, rather than brought up in the first week and then never mentioned again. Perhaps making some posters advertising the services on offer at the Students’ Union could be a fun project for Art and Design students!
Student Minds also held a roundtable event which brought together students and staff from a wide range of higher education institutions to share their tips on best practice, and many of them are already planning changes to better communicate their services. One attendee said:
“There is definitely a language focus here. ‘Counselling’ is used as a catch-all for all kinds of support and there’s definitely more we need to do to help map out all the support that is available.”
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Finally, lots of students had positive experiences to report. At an international student panel organised by Student Minds, one panellist said that when there was a financial crisis in Nigeria, a member of staff had got in contact to ask if they needed financial support, and explained to them clearly where to go to access it.
This is something that can be easily replicated across other institutions — Student Minds suggested that colleges and universities appoint a small number of staff to monitor global events and consider reaching out to students as appropriate.
This would help to make international students feel more included and supported, and reduce frustration by ensuring that staff stay informed about current affairs all over the world.
Student Minds’ report, Understanding Student Mental Health Inequalities: International Students, sets out a clear road map for improvement and helpful suggestions for higher education institutions to take on board. We’re proud to be able to say that many of these are already in place at our Kaplan colleges.
All in all, we’re feeling very positive about the future, and we hope our students are too. We’re looking forward to working with international students to ensure that we’re always striving to make their experience with us as enjoyable as possible, and that help is always available when they need it.