As part of our mini-series about undergraduate mental health, we tried to find out more about the specific issues international students face at this time of global crisis, and which strategies universities and students themselves are deploying to address them.
First, to provide some clarity: the term “mental health” is frequently used ambiguously, but for the purpose of this and all following blog posts, we shall work with the definition provided by the World Health Organisation [WHO], which states that “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” (More details on this can be found here.) The purpose of our articles is to examine imbalances of this state of well-being; we do not consider mental disorders (which require professional support by a GP, psychotherapist or psychiatrist) to be part of this remit.
We spoke to psychologist P. Weigelt-Lindemann, who provides psychological counselling to students at a medium-sized University of Applied Sciences in Germany.
“I started working at this University last year, shortly after the first lockdown had begun in Germany. Since taking up the post, I have therefore always worked from home, and have conducted all counselling remotely so far. My university is a very young (less than 15 years old) teaching university, teaches most degrees in English and has a focus on Natural Sciences, Technology and Agricultural Sciences. As a result, we have a very international student body and more than 50% of students are not German; they mainly come from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and African countries. It has been interesting to see that at first the pandemic barely featured in my counselling; it is only since the second [much stricter] lockdown that was imposed in December that Covid has created real concern for our students. The main anxieties they raise include homesickness, no prospect of being able to travel back into their home countries any time soon and worry about their families, particularly when their families live in countries where infection numbers have gone out of control.”
Social isolation has been a worry throughout the pandemic, but over the winter it has become a bigger issue. Not only international, but also domestic students are suffering from an increased lack of motivation and find it more difficult to absorb information purely through screens and with very limited possibilities for informal exchange with other students. Initially, students adapted well to this new way of learning because they assumed it would only be temporary, but now they are struggling with a state of fatigue – one year on, there is no real end in sight.
P. Weigelt-Lindemann says: “Our ‘Welcome Centre’ that looks after first year students has done an incredibly good job in providing induction to new students remotely, so interestingly these students are coping relatively well with the remote learning. It is those students who were able to build friendships and relationships before the pandemic broke out, and who are used to learning in lecture halls and seminar rooms, who are struggling much more.
“Having said that, international first year students face the added difficulty of cultural assimilation. With everything closed, – not only the university buildings, but also shops, restaurants, cultural venues etc. – these students have only seen their student halls since having arrived in this country, and it is incredibly difficult for them to get to know the country they have moved to and to settle into this new culture. At the same time, there is no prospect of going back home in the near future, so they find themselves in a state of limbo between two cultures, which makes it very hard for them.”
P. Weigelt-Lindemann says the University has experienced a sharp increase in demand for counselling. It has also been noticeable that the pressures on students have increased. Whilst fees are less of an issue in Germany than they are elsewhere (there are no tuition fees at German universities for anyone taking a first degree, though international students have to provide solid proof of financial resources to obtain a student visa), most part-time job opportunities for students – who typically work in bars, restaurants or in the events industry to cover their costs of living – have vanished, and they are more dependent on their families or government support than before. This leads to an increased pressure to be successful in a more challenging learning environment.
The concept of “Emerging Adulthood” as a new phase of development for the period from the late teens through the twenties was first introduced by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett in 2004 and describes the phenomenon of a distinct phase in people’s lives which they spend in self-focused exploration and trying out different possibilities in their careers and relationships, while society sees them as adults who are expected to have entered adulthood and taken decisions accordingly.
P. Weigelt-Lindemann witnesses this discrepancy when engaging in counselling sessions with students. The difficulties that must be negotiated by “emerging adults” are exacerbated by the current situation. “The students are not ready to be adults yet, they need a lot more support in finding their way than previous generations did, but the current situation doesn’t allow them to rely on this support network. This is very difficult for many of them, who are not used to organising their lives for themselves, and that has an effect on their mental health. The university support network has to understand this and the services need to take into account that these students need a lot more (often basic) support than the university is used to providing.”
However, as P. Weigelt-Lindemann points out, the universities can offer a lot to support these students, who should not feel ashamed of asking for help. “Many students think they are the only ones who struggle, but it helps them to find out that their worries and struggles are shared by many and that there is help at hand.”
The university’s counselling service is a good starting point for help, and in many places the Student Unions also provide Mental Health support of excellent quality.
[written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]