Overseas Students and Mental Health – How Can You Support Them?

23 May 2019

Overseas Students

International Education in Australia has experienced substantial growth in the last decade resulting in it becoming Australia’s third largest export industry. As nations become progressively intertwined due to globalisation, more people having access to and pursuing higher levels of education and Australia maintaining itself as a highly-regarded education provider destination, the number of overseas students studying in Australia will continue to increase. While the school sector only makes up 4 per cent of the international education market in Australia, according to the Australian Government Department of Education and Training End of Year Summary of International Student Data 2018 , the school sector enrolment rate for overseas students increased by 4.4 per cent from 2017 to 2018, and in February 2019 the total international enrolments in the school sector reached 20,526. This has led to international education and overseas students receiving greater attention from various stakeholders including the government, the media and education providers.

An overseas student is classified as a person who holds a Student visa (Subclass 500). There are particular requirements relating to this type of visa including that the student be enrolled in a course of study in Australia . On January 1 2018, the Australian Government introduced the National Code of Practices for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2018, requiring education providers to comply with 11 standards as part of Australia’s National Strategy for International Education 2025 to promote Australia as a global education, training and research leader. These efforts are largely felt by students from developing economies, with these students representing the largest number of overseas students within the school sector. On return to their home countries, many of these students seek to enrich their native countries in areas such as the economy, health care, technology and social realms. Based on 2018 data, Chinese students make up half of overseas student enrolments in schools, followed by Vietnam and the Republic of Korea.

Mental Health Issues

Poor mental health is a prevalent issue among students generally, with the vulnerability experienced in adolescence (in relation to identity formation, peer influences, psychosocial and physical development) increasing the likelihood of mental health issues emerging during this period. According to Child Psychologist Michael Carr-Greg, one in seven primary school students and one in four high school students has suffered mental health issues. The World Health Organisation has highlighted that depression is the main source of illness and disability for adolescents aged 10 to 19. Mental health issues can significantly impact a student’s course attendance and progress and may impede a student from meeting their visa requirement of completing greater than 80 per cent of their course attendance.

Identifying and supporting Australian students with mental health issues in schools is difficult enough even without taking into consideration the added complexity of overseas students. Overseas students face additional pressures such as culture shock, because of having difficulty adapting and adjusting to their new environment. An overseas student must overcome language differences, cultural discrepancies, interacting with a new group of peers, dealing with homesickness, as well as learning to cope with being apart from support networks and adjusting to different teaching and learning styles-these factors can all influence a student’s mental health.

One of the factors that will continue to make Australia an attractive destination for overseas students is its reputation for being a country that has educational institutions that support the wellbeing of students who choose to study here. Standard 6 of the National Code of Practices for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2018 specifically requires education providers such as schools to provide overseas student support services “to ensure the mental and physical wellbeing of their overseas students”. The delivery of culturally appropriate support services is critical to assisting overseas students’ wellbeing and the student experience. Two main areas of focus in relation to support services for overseas students relates to staff often having limited experience in dealing with mental health issues including in relation to overseas students and students’ resistance to requesting support. Asking for support is difficult for most students, however there may be additional factors for overseas students. These include having experienced a different mental health care model in their home country to the Western mental health care model and the fear that disclosure may adversely impact on their course progress and that what they disclosed may be relayed back to their family and friends in their home country. The Council of International Students Australia spokesmen Manfred Mletsin, previously an overseas student from Estonia, states that “the biggest concern” around support services for overseas students is “the stigma” around talking about mental health - “it is taboo to talk about it”.

Guide to Best Practice Mental Health Support Services – What Can Your School Do?

There are several things that your school can do to support your overseas students as follows:

  • Staff Training and Awareness – additional training, such as Livingworks' Mental Health First Aid training and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST)and cultural courses should be provided for staff members to better understand the key signs of overseas students requiring support and how to support those in need. This is crucial particularly as some overseas students may be unaware that they have a mental health issue. Clear protocols and procedures should be easily understood, known and followed by all staff members. A Students in Distress Flowchart that clearly outlines levels of distress and appropriate responses is a prime example of a valuable internal document that should be created and supplied to all staff members.
  • Inform and Promote Support Services – clearly inform and promote available mental health support services available to overseas students beyond orientation. Reinforcement of available support services through a mixture of languages and a variety of channels (such as posters, school diary, school website, school Learning Management System (LMS), student leaders and mentors, and in class) increases student knowledge of available services.
  • Technology – given the taboo that exists for many overseas students regarding seeking support, digital approaches to mental health as an alternative to face-to-face support services should be invested in. Studies have found online support services to be as effective in decreasing symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety as face-to-face therapy. The Federal Government’s website ‘Head to Health’ includes a section on mental health for young people. This includes links to free applications to download onto smart devices such as Black Dog Institute’s BITE BACK psychology program aimed at 13 to 16 year old adolescents.

  • Healthy Lifestyle Promotion – encourage healthy lifestyle promotion among overseas students by enrolling them in team-bonding exercises that encourage social engagement and physical activity. This is particularly important to decrease the likelihood of ‘culture shock’ negatively impacting overseas students in the long-term and may help to reduce the chance of mental health issues occurring in the first instance. Examples include social clubs such as volunteering, co-curricular sporting activities, and implementing mindfulness classes as part of the school curriculum.

Savanna Wray

Savanna is a Senior Associate in our Sydney office’s Education Division, assisting schools in the implementation of risk and compliance solutions to meet their regulatory obligations. Savanna has completed a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Sydney. Prior to working for CompliSpace she worked as an Operations Analyst for a hybrid tech-service provider company.