Dr Mahima Kalla is a digital health researcher based within the Centre for Digital Transformation of Health at the University of Melbourne (Australia). She specialises in the exploration of people’s biopsychosocial needs, and the intersection of physical and mental health.
International student mobility has been on the rise over the past 20 years. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), there were over six million tertiary international students globally as of 2019. International students have historically faced psychosocial challenges such as loneliness and homesickness, academic stress often due to new ways of teaching and learning, difficulties negotiating systems and social structures, and experiencing discrimination. These factors combined can lead to poor mental health outcomes in international students. Furthermore, international students, in particular male students, are less likely to seek help for mental health challenges compared to domestic students.
The imposed lockdowns and travel ban during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these challenges due to a variety of factors, such as greater social isolation, reduced access to part-time job opportunities impacting financial stability, and additional academic pressure due to rapid transition to online learning. The OECD has estimated that the pandemic potentially affected close to four million international students studying in OECD countries. While overall students’ mental health worsened during the pandemic, fortunately the pandemic also accelerated the public discourse on mental health, and expedited the provision of crucial mental health support services to people. With the re-opening of travel and return to campuses worldwide, here are five things international students can do to support their mental health and wellbeing: (Note: Refer to the resource links at the bottom of the article for further information.)
- Get help early: Early intervention is key. When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, it is important to recognise and acknowledge signs of negative emotional states as early as possible and get the help that you need. Many educational institutions offer counselling and pastoral care, free of charge or at subsidised prices. Additionally, there may be government-funded services that you could access for free, some of which also provide translating and interpreting services. For example, in Australia, international students can access services such as Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and MensLine among others. You may also be able to seek interpreters to speak to such services, for instance, via the Translating and Interpreting Service in Australia. Some international students may also be able to obtain full or partial coverage of mental health services through their overseas student health insurance, depending on the insurance cover and service provider.
- Examine internalised stigma: Despite the growing awareness of the importance of looking after our mental health and wellbeing, internalised stigma and unconscious bias can delay help-seeking in international students. The Mayo Clinic provides some helpful suggestions to address mental health stigma. It may also be helpful to recognise that such stigma is often rooted in false beliefs and misinformation about mental illness. Educating yourself from evidence-based sources and talking to a counsellor may help overcome your internalised stigma, improve self-esteem, and facilitate help-seeking.
- Engage in Self-care: In addition to getting professional help, self-care is also crucial when it comes to promoting mental health and wellbeing. Mental health is a multi-faceted issue which is influenced by a variety of aspects including lifestyle habits. Making a self-care plan can be a great way to support your holistic personal wellbeing. The Black Dog Institute has created a personal mental health check-in template that can help you identify changes in your personal coping ability and take concrete steps to improve your mental health.
- Get moving: There is growing scientific consensus that physical exercise has profound benefits for mental health, including reduction in stress, depression, and anxiety. Women’s health not-for-profit Jean Hailes provides actionable advice about developing and implementing an exercise plan that can be applied by people of all genders. It is crucial to choose an activity that you enjoy for longevity of your exercise program. There is also emerging evidence that leisure-time physical activity, i.e. physical activity undertaken in one’s free time has greater benefits for mental health compared to physical activity conducted as part of employment responsibilities or daily life tasks. Thus, you may consider combining exercise with recreation, e.g. planning hikes or bike rides with a friend, picking up a social sport, or even engaging in pleasurable solo walks in a restorative environment, such as a local park or other green space.
- Make use of technology: The pandemic also catapulted global investment in digital health technologies as we frantically sought to transition our ways of living and working to the ‘metaverse’. Digital health technologies, such as mobile apps, web-based resources, and online peer support communities have immense potential to support people’s health and wellbeing, in particular for promotion of self-care. Examples of digital mental health tools that may be helpful, include but are not limited to: online mental health self-assessment tools, expert-developed mindfulness apps such as Smiling Mind, culturally and linguistically tailored health information websites such as Embrace Mental Health, online peer support services such as those available via SANE and QLife. However, given the diversity of information available on the web, in particular the ongoing risks of health misinformation, it is important to consider whether the resources and information you are consuming are evidence-based. One tip is to probe whether the resources you are accessing were developed by subject matter experts, in consultation with people who have lived experience of mental health challenges.
Principally, it is okay to start small. Taking incremental self-care steps towards improving your mental health, and getting help at the earliest signs of distress, can go a long way in improving your quality of life.
Black Dog Institute. (2019). Online Clinic – Mental Health Assessment Tool. Retrieved from: https://onlineclinic.blackdoginstitute.org.au
Black Dog Institute. (2023). Your weekly personal mental health check-in during Coronavirus. Retrieved from: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/news/your-weekly-personal-mental-health-check-in-during-coronavirus/
Embrace. (2023). Embrace Multicultural Mental Health. Retrieved from: https://embracementalhealth.org.au
Heads up. (2023). Taking care of yourself and staying well: Lifestyle. Retrieved from: https://www.headsup.org.au/your-mental-health/taking-care-of-yourself-and-staying-well/lifestyle
Healthdirect (2020). Exercise and mental health. Retrieved from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/exercise-and-mental-health
Jean Hailes. (2023). Physical activity & exercise: Starting an exercise program. Retrieved from: https://www.jeanhailes.org.au/health-a-z/healthy-living/physical-activity-exercise#starting-an-exercise-program
Mayo Clinic. (2023). Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health/art-20046477
QLife. (2023). QLife. Retrieved from: https://qlife.org.au
Sane. (2023). Peer Support. Retrieved from: https://www.sane.org/peer-support
Smiling Mind. (2023). Try our free mindfulness app. Retrieved from: https://www.smilingmind.com.au/smiling-mind-app
Acknowledgement: I thank Dr Hasan Ferdous for his inputs on this article.
Declaration: This article is not intended to provide medical advice or replace medical care. The examples of resources suggested in this article primarily relate to Australian services, and do not constitute an exhaustive list. Please talk to your doctor to seek help and learn more about the services available in your area.