Mental Health, Students

Mental health of international undergraduates in a time of global crisis

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]

Mental Health, Students

The mental well-being of our students

Whilst at Gold Leaf we believe it is alarmist – and not at all helpful – to call the present generation of students “lost” because of the impact of the pandemic and various lockdowns on their education – in our experience most young people are astonishingly brave and resilient – it has to be acknowledged that everyone who has enjoyed working for a degree in happier times must sympathise with their plight.  Even though many universities around the world have done sterling work in supporting students as much as possible with online learning and blended learning and librarians have both rapidly increased their electronic holdings and made sure that academics and students are well-versed in using them, it cannot be denied that students are missing out on many of the things that make university special: for example, fieldwork expeditions and collaborative lab-work; trips to the theatre, concerts and art galleries and the other rich cultural experiences usually available to undergraduates; even simply hanging out with their peers. On top of this, students may be worried that degrees awarded under today’s restricted studying conditions may be “worth less” than “normal” and that even if the qualifications are recognised, there will be few jobs waiting for those who have qualified.

It is therefore not surprising that concern for students’ mental well-being has increased substantially throughout the past year. A significant amount of research has now been undertaken on this issue. One study, led by the University of Glasgow and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that thoughts of suicide among undergraduates encouraged by 8 – 10% in just three months.  A survey conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that students now report considerably lower levels of personal well-being than the population as a whole. Dartmouth College, in the USA, detected spikes in student depression and anxiety as early as March 2020, when students were first encouraged to leave the campus and conduct most of their learning online. In January, French students organised a series of nationwide protests to draw attention to rising mental health problems caused by the pandemic.  Special mental health counsellors appointed at the University of Lyon say they have been overwhelmed by the demands placed on their services.  Two undergraduates at this university have already taken their own lives this year. An article in The Lancet points out that not much is known about the effects of large-scale pandemics on the health of children and adolescents[1]. As well as having a profound impact on their education, social distancing may exacerbate the risk of other threats to young people, such as physical, mental or sexual abuse. If their parents lose their jobs, this also undermines their sense of security.

Last year UNESCO started its Minding our Minds campaign. Eric Falt, Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, wrote: “It will take all of our collective effort and focus to ensure that students are getting the care they need to succeed.” To highlight the importance of the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the mental health of marginalized communities, UNESCO New Delhi has created five awareness posters, which are available in four languages English, Hindi, Sinhala and Tamil.

Clearly undergraduate mental health is vitally important to everyone: today’s undergraduates will be the scientists, politicians, artists and writers of the future.  Over the next few weeks, we are therefore planning to dig a little deeper into how some universities are supporting the mental health of their undergraduate communities.  If, having read this post, you would like to contribute or comment, we shall be delighted to hear from you.

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]


[1] Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19 – The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health