Looking at the evidence that there will be 262 million higher education students in the world by 2025, and one in four higher education students currently suffers from mental health problems, there is no better time than now to raise awareness of mental health in higher education. In the absence of a stable mental health, the student experience is hindered and education attainment may be limited. The mental health of higher education students is not only about students. It is about the mental health of their family members, friends, other social contacts, and their community members. When a family member or loved one experiences mental ill health, it affects the student, their studies and academic achievement.
The particular challenges for international students
International students travel to the UK from all over the world to study, leaving their families, friends and other social contacts behind. For most international students, experiences of mental health problems go beyond the signs and symptoms, it is also about other things such as interrupted family interactions, stalled friendships, limited culturally sensitive environment and broken relationships.
Speaking to international students about their mental health has stirred something in me that makes me ask when diversity of the university staffing will become an indicator in the local, national and world university ranking table. Without a doubt, including an equal distribution of the staffing team from different ethnic backgrounds will promote equal support services for all students. As a mental health nurse, when I listen to international students, they commonly report stresses such as confusion with transitioning to a new environment, feeling homesick, facing communication barriers, and having new financial problems. Some of them express symptoms of mental health problems such as anxiety, panic attacks and depressions, but they are sometimes unable to identify what they feel.
Sadly, while universities offer admissions and accept thousands of pounds worth of tuition fees from international students, their lecturing teams do not usually reflect a multicultural population to support these students. This is because some universities have failed to employ culturally accessible personal tutors and lecturers who will both understand the experiences of international students and provide culturally relevant support.
I know the feeling of speaking to someone who does not understand you, your culture and how this might affect your experiences of being in higher education while trying to achieve academically like your classmates. When I was an international student, I suffered situational anxiety and panic attacks because I was unable to pay my fees, so I had to quit my studies due to lack of funds for tuition. I did not know or understand what I was feeling and I was not able to articulate my feelings without feeling like a failure. To make matters worse, my father had just passed away and my widowed mother lived far away in Nigeria where mobile phones were not readily available at the time, and when they were, there was the issue of poor network connection. So staying in touch was difficult. In addition, I felt that my personal tutor only discussed assignment submissions and exams, and did not focus on my need for a culturally relevant mental health support.
This inspired me to start Raising Awareness of Mental Health in Higher Education (RAMHHE), a campaign that seeks to sensitise students and prompt collective anti-stigma discussions around mental health that will benefits all higher education students.
What can be done?
For all higher education students, not being able to identify the sign and symptoms of mental health hinders help-seeking behaviour. University authorities need to raise awareness of mental health to promote an anti-stigma culture that makes it OK to talk about mental health problems. I think it would be helpful if universities could also employ tutors from different cultures, race and ethnic groups, embed mental health into the curriculum, and involve students in the decision-making about mental health care provision. Making these changes would have a significant impact on the mental health of overseas students – and greatly improve their experience of studying in the UK.
Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi is the founder of RAMHE, and an Economic and Social Research Council PhD student, Mental Health and Wellbeing, University of Nottingham. Follow her on Twitter: @jobardi and @ramhe
Indicator 3.3.2 of ProtectED's Student Wellbeing and Mental Health measures requires member universities to assess the demographic profile of staff in professional student advisory roles (counselors, mental health advisers, wellbeing advisers etc), and to take steps, where possible, to ensure that staff working in these areas reflect the university population.
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