Research brief: International students and mental health

Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre Deputy Director Associate Professor Helen Forbes-Mewett is raising awareness of the specific mental health needs of international students - and supporting the development of best-practice responses.

Image of international students (Credit: IEAA)

Photo credit: International Education Association of Australia (2019)

International students in Australia can face new and unfamiliar social and academic contexts. In the midst of the current pandemic, these students are not only adapting to life in Australia, but adjusting to online learning, limited physical interaction with fellow students, and the prospect of prolonged separation from family and friends overseas. All these challenges can take a significant toll on their mental health and well-being.

Monash University Senior Lecturer and MMIC Deputy Director, Associate Professor Helen Forbes-Mewett, has studied various aspects of international students' lives in depth over the past decade, including employment, housing, personal safety, and crime. She notes that despite concerning evidence suggesting international students’ mental health outcomes are in decline, students themselves are raising awareness of the challenges, and encouraging fellow students to seek help. This includes speaking on panels, developing support programs, and even raising awareness and expressing their challenges through art and creative performance.

Discussing the issue on community radio in March, A/Prof Forbes-Mewett noted the individualistic nature of Australian society is one of the key issues that impacts both health outcomes and access to support services. Her research has found that despite the diverse needs of international students, support services are often designed around a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Counselling and support services can seem unapproachable or irrelevant, and results in students instead relying on friends and family for health information and treatment. Recent research connects these factors to the lower rates of students accessing primary health services and instead ending up in hospital with more acute complications.

In addition to cultural barriers and stigma around seeking help, international students often face out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare, or may only have access to a limited number of counselling sessions or other health services. A/Prof Forbes-Mewett suggests these act as additional barriers that can undermine mental health outcomes:

The limited number of sessions that students can have is often not enough to unpack complex problems. Services also need to meet the students half-way by finding approaches that resonate with the students and their cultural background. That may include having counsellors and service workers from various diverse backgrounds that may make students more comfortable.

Resources have also been developed to support education institutions to implement policies and procedures that are tailored to the needs of international students. Emerging research from other cultural contexts may also support the development of culturally specific approaches to prevention and intervention. A/Prof Forbes-Mewett suggests future research should continue developing an understanding of how specific cohorts of students understand mental health and wellbeing. This, she hopes, can help guide evidence-based, best practice responses to support international students.

To develop awareness of this topic of growing concern, MMIC has developed its second research brief on the topic of 'International student mental health'. The brief provides an overview of literature relating to the mental health of international students from the past two decades. Reviewing this body of research, it is clear that support and treatment to adequately address the specific mental health needs of international students is currently hindered by a range of structural, social, and cultural factors. To discuss the implications in the current context of COVID-19 and ways to effectively support international students, MMIC will present a public webinar on the topic in September 2020 featuring academics, industry contacts, and international students. To stay up to date on this and other MMIC events, follow us on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter.