Invest time and research into the planning phases for study abroad success
Mental Health Issues Follow the Student Abroad
As study abroad numbers rebound and institutions look to diversify participation, they must also consider ways to address the challenges of student mental health in education abroad. Study abroad fosters adaptability, creative problem-solving, and intercultural skills in students, essential skills for the global job market. (Tanikawa, 2023) Research also indicates that study abroad factors into college selection and contributes positively to student retention, GPAs, and graduation rates, making it a significant value-add to an institution’s academic offerings. (Bhatt, 2022) However, given the prevalence of mental health issues in the college-aged population, institutions must anticipate that mental health challenges will be present in study abroad and work proactively to strengthen student resilience and mental health support for education abroad.
Paint a Realistic Picture for Students
An important first step is managing student expectations. In our social media world, it’s hard to ignore the picture-perfect experiences of college students across the globe. With considerable efforts to encourage and diversify student participation, the rainbow and unicorn language that is sometimes used to promote study abroad can leave students poorly prepared for the reality of the experience. In advising and pre-departure preparations, study abroad advisors should highlight some of the known stressors and talk openly about some of the difficulties. In addition to new foods and cultural experiences, students are often faced with different approaches to work, learning, and communication that can be difficult to navigate, especially when unanticipated. Local attitudes and acceptance of personal identities and mental health needs vary greatly across the globe. Preparing students for these challenges can help to ease student anxiety and empower their cultural adjustment.
Pre-departure preparations for all students should also include discussions about accessible self-care and wellness supports. Before travel, students should review their personal wellness strategies and consider if these same strategies will be available to them while abroad. Typical stress-busters like free fitness classes at the university gym, or long runs near campus, may not be possible or safe in some locations abroad. Finding alone time or maintaining family and friend connections can be surprising challenges. Some students will turn to alcohol use to de-stress while abroad, yet this strategy can prove problematic on many levels. Helping students to identify self-care strategies, grounding techniques, and breathing exercises to use while abroad can support students to maintain their well-being and allow them to more actively engage in their new environment.
What Coverage Does Your International Insurance Provide
With the varying attitudes and capabilities to support mental health worldwide, it is essential for schools to carefully investigate their international insurance coverage and care options for mental health that are available to travelers. Assistance providers can often identify local English-speaking therapists or provide telehealth options to stabilize a situation until appropriate care can be arranged. The Forum on Education Abroad’s recent Student Risk Report found that 66% of students who experienced mental health distress during their time abroad withdrew from their programs, highlighting the importance of mental health evacuation coverage. (Dietrich, 2023) Study abroad must also dialogue with the counseling center to understand the support, if any, that they may be able to provide for students while overseas.
Check for Pre-Existing Conditions
Many schools send students abroad who are actively managing a mental health condition. With the proper preparation, these students can have successful experiences, but a proactive approach is critical. Sometimes students assume that things will be easier, or even better, in an exciting new environment, but research and experience indicate that mental health conditions tend to persist and sometimes become even more challenging in a new location. Crucial preparations include understanding the availability and legality of needed medications, considering the impact of environmental differences, and developing a wellness plan, including identifying access to ongoing or emergency care. Assistance providers can often provide invaluable support to students in these preparations.
Prepare Your Faculty and Staff
With the popularity of faculty-led programming, study abroad offices must also consider how they are preparing faculty and staff trip leaders to support student wellness and serve as a first responder to a mental health incident. Training that includes mental health case studies can be effective in helping program leaders to see signs of concern about a student and to explore a potential course of action including how to access resources abroad. FERPA, HIPAA, ADA, and Title IX regulations should also be reviewed with program leaders. Faculty and staff who can incorporate strategies for building community within their cohort, actively acknowledge some of the challenges of the experience, and build self-care and wellness activities into programming provide a supportive environment for student success.
Review (or Develop) a Plan for Your Institution
Even before the pandemic, institutions were grappling with how to address mental health in education abroad. Increased societal awareness and acceptance of mental wellness needs have made university students more open to efforts to support mental wellness and have increased their expectation that institutions will provide such support. Students are actively seeking mental health support and these needs extend to a term abroad. To address the mental wellness needs of students in education abroad, institutions should:
- Secure the appropriate resources to support mental wellness and mental health incidents overseas.
- Boost student resiliency to manage the mental stressors of living in a new culture and identify appropriate self-care and wellness tools for environments different from the home campus.
- Train faculty and staff that work directly with students abroad to prioritize wellness in their programming and to act appropriately when a student needs more involved, professional support.
Institutions that recognize and support the mental health needs of students engaged in international activities provide essential and impactful protections that maintain access to these valuable academic experiences for a broad range of students.
Bhatt, R.A. (2022, January 14). Education Abroad and College Completion. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine Pub Med Central.
Dietrich, A.J. (2023). Student Risk Report. Warren, RI: The Forum on Education Abroad.
Tanikawa, M. (2023, September 8). How Study Abroad Can Benefit College Students. Retrieved from usnews.com
By Marcia W. Henisz, Principal & Founder, SASSIE Consulting and Creator of Preparing for Wellness Abroad