Supporting international students’ mental health
International students make up a substantial proportion of the UK’s student population, but how do their mental health needs differ from those of home students? That’s the question we’re looking to get to the bottom of in this month’s episode of Accommodation Matters.
Host Jenny Shaw oversees an expert conversation that covers some of the factors that have a particular impact on international students’ mental health – including finances, visas and cultural competency in student support – and how other countries’ approach to mental health can influence students’ own views on seeking support, as well as how mental health issues might present for students from different cultures.
This episode’s guests include:
- Jamie-Lukas Campbell, Postgraduate Officer at Queens University Belfast Student Union
- Dom Smithies, Influencing and Advocacy Lead at Student Minds
- Andy Winter, Director of Student Support Services at University of Sheffield
Special guest Bernadette Cochonat, Head of International Sales and Partnerships at Unite Students, additionally shares her insights into some of the specific factors and cultural background impacting on students from key markets China, India and Nigeria.
You can listen to the episode, or read the transcript, below.
‘Supporting international students’ mental health’ episode transcript
Jenny Shaw: Now, student mental health is always on the agenda and quite rightly so over recent years, the student accommodation sector has trained its staff to recognise and respond to student mental health concern and to ensure that there are clear pathways for support. What does this look like if you’re thousands of miles away from home, if you don’t have the vocabulary to talk about what’s happening to you, and if you’re carrying the weight of expectations for your whole family?
Today, we are talking about mental health and international students. Before we go to our studio guest, I’d like to play you a recent interview with my colleague Bernadette Cochonat, who is head of International Partnerships at Unite Students. I’m sure many of you will know. We’ve talked a lot about international student mental health over the last few years, so I was very keen to revisit that conversation and to share it with you. I think probably a good place to start would be China because obviously, still, the majority of international students are coming to US from China. What is the approach to mental health in China?
Bernadette Cochonat: Yes, it’s a very wide question and I think over the years, we realised internally that our standard process to support students with mental health was not really resonating with Chinese students, because the approach there is quite different from our Western approach. In China, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health. These words are very, very strong and usually linked to a very formal diagnosis. When people are diagnosed with mental health issues, things are recorded on a file that can follow them during their life and close some doors to them in terms of career opportunities.
It’s something that has a lot of consequences and when students are stressed or unwell, they would be very reluctant to use a service where they have to make a formal process to get support. I think this is the main difference is that in the West, mental health is now widely recognised as something that can happen to anyone. We have the saying, “It’s okay not to be okay,” but this is not really the case in China.
Jenny: How does that affect students themselves then? Because of the stigma, is there just that reluctance to come forward until maybe the issue gets to be really serious?
Bernadette: Some studies have been made in Canada a few years ago where they asked some Chinese families which channels they would use if they have any mental health issues. The very last channel that came in that survey was an official channel with professional dealing with mental health. What seems to be working is when we educate students on what mental health is and what we can do to support and usually, their friends will come forward and tell us that one person they know is unwell.
Jenny: How is that received by the students if their friends are letting us know or letting their accommodation provider know? Is that seen as a positive thing or does that create fear?
Bernadette: I think sometimes it can be a relief for them that someone actually noticed that they are unwell. The main difference would be how we then deal with that information. If we lead the student to, again, a formal process where they have to register with a service, they will not necessarily want to be helped. If we start by having a more informal chat with them to try to understand why they are feeling unwell and then try to support them in an informal way.
In China, for example, the students who are coming to the UK, they were still born during the one-child policy, so they are the only child of the family. They are facing a huge family pressure because their parents and their grandparents have saved a lot of money and sending them abroad to study is like a family investment and this adds a lot of pressure during their stay in the UK.
Jenny: That is a lot, isn’t it?
Bernadette: Especially considering that they will be mixed with UK students, with European students, who are usually seeing their study time as a fantastic time to make friends, to socialise, to party, to discover life. Usually, these are very joyful years for many students, but for Chinese students, they just want to focus on their academics. They don’t tend to engage very much with social activities and as a consequence, they quickly have the feeling that they don’t fit in and that they can’t make friends.
Jenny: It’s challenging to the student accommodation sector as well, isn’t it, because we tend to think of the social events and that kind of community, that settling-in process is a protective factor for mental health, it helps with wellbeing and so on. If that’s not something that they’re prioritising, that might, again, put them at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to their wellbeing.
Bernadette: Absolutely. Again, I think it’s about just being mindful of the type of demographics that we have in each building and maybe to adjust the language and to adjust the events to suit the demographics.
Jenny: We’ve spoken in the past as well about how Chinese students might be seeking something like traditional Chinese medicine for a mental health issue and looked at it from that physical body approach. Is that something you are able to talk about as well?
Bernadette: Yes, I think the whole concept of mental health is very Western, to begin with, because in Chinese medicine, there is no difference between physical health and mental health. In the West, when we have a headache, we take a paracetamol and basically, we try to cure the pain but we don’t try to cure the symptoms. Whereas in China, if you have a headache, before giving you the medicine, they will try to understand what has caused the headache in the first place to address it. It’s a very different approach. It’s always going to the roots of the issue before finding the right medicine.
Jenny: It challenges, doesn’t it, our Western mindset about what the right course of action is and how these things should be tackled.
Bernadette: The challenge for us is it’s a lot more difficult to track if we don’t go via or more official process because then, they don’t want to be tracked. Unfortunately, for us, if we want to be able to liaise with university or to properly supports them, we do need some kind of tracking. It’s really about finding the right compromise so that they are still comfortable to engage with us and at the same time, reassured that whatever they tell us is not going to be used elsewhere. I think this is the main reassurance that they need.
Jenny: Good. Well, we’ve talked a lot about Chinese students, but of course, India is a really growing market for everyone in the UK higher education sector. We’ve got a lot more students now coming from India. What are the attitudes towards mental health in India? I’m saying that with the knowledge that it is a very big and diverse country, so there might be more than one answer to that.
Bernadette: Yes, and to be honest, because it’s still quite a new market, I think a lot of accommodation providers and even universities are learning about all this. From what we can see, most Indian students are coming to the UK with a finance plan. They all come with a student loan or with a scholarship. What seems to be causing most of the pressure and the stress is the pressure linked to their finances. The issues are very different from what we can see from our Chinese students. For example, the main benefit I would say for us to talk to Indian students is that English is a language that they are a lot more familiar with.
Just the concept of mental health, even if it can be different in their home country, at least the language is not as scary as it can be for a Chinese student. While our Chinese students are the only child of the family, in India, very often, is quite the opposite. Indian families are much larger and for them to send one kid abroad to study is also a significant investment. It means that the whole family is investing and the main motivation for that investment is to give a better life to the child that they are going to send abroad.
These Indian students, when they arrive here, very often, they don’t have any money so the first pressure that they have is to find a job to make ends meet while they are in the UK to support themself with their accommodation, with their daily expenses. This is a big source of their mental health issues is how they are going to support themself while at the same time, be successful with their academics.
Another demographic that is really growing in the UK is students coming from Nigeria. We can see that students from Nigeria coming to the UK tend to be mature students. They come with different challenges so again, the financial aspect, very often, is quite prominent from that market. A lot of Nigerian students will come with a student loan, so they will have all that financial pressure at the same time as pressure from their studies.
The other challenge, because they come to the UK when they are a little bit older than Chinese students, for example, is that they have a family. Either they have to leave their family behind, which can be really hard or they are bringing their dependents with them, which adds even more to the financial pressure for them.
This is also a market that is bringing different challenges for accommodation providers and for universities to think about in terms of how we can support them better with their own challenges when they are here. I just wanted to say that for international students when it comes to mental health, there is not a one-size-fits-all because all these international students are coming with their own cultural background.
It can be quite difficult to have one framework that works for everybody in terms of how we can support them because even the source of their mental health issues can be very different depending on where they come from, and how they are going to express how they feel can be very different, and how they will want to talk about it and how willing they will be to talk about it. That is the main challenge for us in the UK is how we can tailor our approach to all these international students.
Jenny: Plenty of food for thought there and a good opening to this topic. Now, I’d like to introduce our panel of experts in the studio today. Jamie-Lukas Campbell is a postgraduate officer at Queen’s University Belfast Student Union. Hi, Jamie-Lukas.
Jamie-Lukas: Hi, everyone.
Jenny: Dom Smithies is influencing an advocacy lead for Student Minds. Hi, Dom.
Dom Smithies: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Jenny: Andy Winter is a director of Student Support Services at the University of Sheffield. Hi, Andy.
Andy Winter: Hello, everyone.
Jenny: Dom, I’m going to start with you. You and your colleagues at Student Minds have published an excellent report on international students’ mental health, and it was based, as your work always is, on lots of involvement from students themselves. What did the students tell you?
Dom: Yes, thank you. We had the joy of working with students over the last five years, so it’s really pulled together a lot of the conversations that we’ve been having with different panels and focus groups in our research. The report covers quite a range of themes, each of which was led by prompts given by students from their own experiences, largely talking about challenges of loneliness and isolation, the need and desire for there to be strong communities built either by the university or their students’ union, and the international student offices specifically.
They also spoke about the challenges that can be felt in all the work being done that was gearing up to creating strong communities and creating feelings of belonging in institutions being undermined by some actions at the university such as the challenges of the constant visa checks and somewhat threatening emails that sometimes went out. They felt that there was a real conflict that they constantly had to manage. In terms of the support and support needs they spoke to us about the challenges around language and communication and different cultural perspectives of what mental health is. I’m sure we’ll delve into that more throughout this conversation.
They spoke about the challenge of tension or events happening back home in their home countries that were causing a lot of stress and anxiety for them. There not being obviously support for them locally at their institution and often many members of staff and their peers, in fact these students would be completely unaware of what was going on for them back home if they didn’t bring up and share that. A lack of awareness and understanding of their context that they’re navigating university life in. It’s very easy to be mindful of the issues that are affecting the local population when they’re local, rather than the issues affecting them from back home.
They spoke about the need for support services to be more culturally competent and inclusive and accessible to international student populations. Had many fantastic conversations about the balance between services being more inclusive, accessible, and culturally competent versus actually potential for there to be a need for tailored services for particular student communities.
I think the different needs across the whole international student population potentially gears toward more tailored support being necessary and relevant for some institutions that may be catering to bigger international student populations and potentially, international student populations that are made up of students from one particular country or region. A lot of themes across language, support needs, challenges back home came out but I’ll stop there. I’m sure we can delve into it throughout this conversation, but those are some of the headlines from this report.
Jenny: Thanks, Dom. That’s really interesting and what I’m taking from this is it all starts with knowing your students and having that inclusive mindset about all the services that the university offers. There is also something there about the context of international students and what they are coming to university with, what they’re bringing with them, and what they are experiencing before you even start to think about mental health, how do I provide a service? How do I fix this issue?
Jamie-Lukas, I wonder if that’s something you could expand on. There are particular stresses and strains that come with being an international student. Some students in the report talked about culture shock. Is that something that you can tell us a little bit more about, just bring that to life for us.
Jamie-Lukas: What we’re finding with our international students is that it’s cultural shock on both sides. It’s both the pastoral and social side, but also the academic challenges that come along with studying in an entirely new country. What I found in this past year is that local and international cultural competency is so important for international students, but we found that there’s this gap between students’ admission into university and the actual enrolment.
For our international students, they found that once they were actually brought into the institutions, they aren’t entirely sure of how they can navigate those spaces and so having those local and internationally culturally competent staff who can engage with them would be so much more helpful. International students are a diverse spectrum, those students are reflected from across the world. What I found in the past year is that one, we’re seeing international students who are a bit more mature so students who are slightly older and have a range of both professional and personal experiences.
Their needs for accommodation, academic support, pastoral care, and community building are entirely different than the playbook that currently exists. We’re also seeing bigger issues around just cultural communication and cultural competency in student residences, we’re seeing it in the faculties themselves but we’re also seeing that in the classroom directly. I think it’s incumbent upon universities to look at providing better local and internationally tailored cultural competency programs for both staff and students.
What we found works really, really well is student-led culturally competent training programs. Essentially listening sessions in town halls that are run and operated and centred around and by students. We found that mandatory courses around active bystander training and really inclusive programming whereby students can say exactly what they need in a safe space but even more importantly, where students have diverse and inclusive representation among staff. There was a fabulous report [Living Black at University] that came out last year from Unite Students that highlighted the importance of having representative staff.
You power behind students, again, from across the spectrum, seeing staff and residence halls who look like them, who speak like them, and who can relate to some of their own experiences. Recognising that there is somewhat of a gap that international students feel in terms of that shock between, “Hey, I’m admitted into university, I’m really excited”, and then actually showing up. There was a pretty profound gap in what students found to be either a lack of support or just really not enough tailored partnerships or community engagement side to fill that gap that is just present for both home and international students.
Jenny: Thanks for mentioning the Living Black at University report as well in that idea of representation and cultural competence. That’s coming out quite strongly from what you’re saying and it’s coming out I think in other areas as well. Certainly, that was something that Bernadette touched upon in her interview.
How do you navigate the system around student support, student wellbeing mental health if your own worldview and mindset around mental health is completely different? Why would it not be coming from a different culture with different cultural framing of that? Dom, is that something that came out in your research at all?
Dom: Definitely. I think there is a desire for all student populations to see staff that look like them that can understand and empathise and relate to the experiences they’re feeling. A challenge with international student populations compared to, I suppose, talking about racialised communities more broadly, or the LGBTQ community is being labelled as international can be a very diverse experience – we talk about international students as if it’s one homogeneous population.
But the experiences of international students from the EU, from English-speaking countries in America and Canada versus international students from Southeast Asia, are all going to be very different and the different kinds of culture shock they’re going to experience, it can be different. The understanding and perceptions around mental health, around support, around seeking help they are going to be very different.
I think when we’re talking about cultural competency, it can be a challenge because we need to be mindful that the international student population is so large. It’s about just over a fifth of our student population and there’s such richness and diversity within that population that to be mindful of all the needs and competent in supporting them is a huge challenge for institutions to have to grapple with. I don’t think it’s an easy one to just say be more inclusive and accessible and mindful of internationality. I think there is a challenge for institutions to really know and understand their own populations.
Jenny: Thank you. Andy, I’m really keen to bring you in because you’re leading a service in a university that has a lot of international students. What does this look like to you? What are some of the things that you’re working on that you’re grappling with?
Andy: I think the interesting thing when you’re working with a large international student community is, as people have said, it’s not a homogeneous community. You’ve got a wide variety of different things that are going on, different cultural experiences, different understandings of the UK, different levels of maturity. We see international students who are coming forward to our services directly, so there’s definitely an increase in openness that’s there. I do feel that culturally, a number of countries are a long way behind where we are currently in the UK. We do see concerns highlighted by friends and staff members.
The more worrying ones for me are where students are coming into our services because they’ve not been highlighted through any previous mechanism and their distress has reached a level of acuteness that their first interaction is not with university services, but it’s with the NHS or it’s with police. To be clear, that’s a tiny fraction of the cases that our teams support, but it’s obviously a concerning fraction, given that it contends international students who don’t have the same awareness of the UK’s public services, who might have particular perceptions around figures of authority because of the cultural backgrounds from their countries.
I think in all the work that we do in university support services, we’re keen to focus on early intervention and proactive support for wellbeing. That’s why you’ve seen these types of roles grow in institutions across the sector at the same time that people have been increasing response resources. From my point of view, when you’re working with international students, it’s about creating opportunities to engage them early to help build their understanding of what we mean when we say mental health.
Recognising that Westernised definition that Bernadette referred to in her discussion, and also work to reduce any reluctance on their part to admit they’re struggling, something that’s a real challenge if they come to the UK from a culture where there is a level of stigma or taboo attached to that subject. While we think we are advanced in the UK around this concept of openness of disclosure of mental health difficulties, it wasn’t that long ago that this was really stigmatised and taboo within our culture. We still have UK nationals who struggle with coming forward because they feel somehow it’s shameful to talk about their issues.
Creating supportive environments, as Dom said, from strong, diverse friendship groups to academic settings that can do things that talk about mental health adjacent issues like the toxicity of perfectionism or dealing with failure, openly acknowledging those things, it’s crucial to helping students understand that getting help as soon as they feel they need it is the right thing to do.
Jenny: Thanks, Andy. What are some examples of some of these early intervention initiatives that you got going?
Andy: I think there’s a few things that we can talk about. We’re really lucky at Sheffield that we’ve got a long-established process of ongoing orientation called Global Campus. It’s something that’s open to all students, but it’s primarily focused at international students to give them some regular opportunities throughout the year to make friends with people from other backgrounds, to settle into life at university, and to understand the wider city. We do lots of things like historic walking tours of the city, things that are connected into the Peak District, and that connection with nature.
An orientation week, which is akin to the kind of thing that you’ll see at a lot of universities, a week prior to the main arrival and welcome week, that gives people an extra time to settle into the institution and the city. There’s also a wide range of weekly events and activities that are led by our global ambassadors, some of whom are, themselves, international students, so they understand what it’s like to go through that experience and they can feel that sense of kinship. Again, relating to what Dom says, the students can see themselves personified in the people that they’re working with.
I think the good thing about that is that activities like global cafes or hangouts or craft and events, games events, those kinds of things, they provide an informal social connection point where students aren’t under pressure to talk about their mental health, but can open up more softly. That’s much less daunting than going, “All right, I need to interact with this very formal service”, whether that’s our mental health services or whether it’s sitting and talking to a doctor.
The other thing I’d say that we do at Sheffield, which I think is slightly different textually to what happens at other institutions, is that the support that we provide for visa immigration matters, that team is aligned with our welfare and wellbeing team, and our student experience and diversity inclusion team. It’s a subtle change but putting them organisationally alongside those teams with a link to the registry and compliance function rather than vice versa, rather than having them in that registry function and having the link outwards to the welfare teams means that there can be more cross-team working.
I wouldn’t pretend that with the finished article, we’re always looking to improve. I was speaking with our team this week and they’ve just started some new work with colleagues in our GP service to see how we can further target that reluctance of coming forward that I mentioned earlier. If we have students who have perceptions about their own English language competency, particularly around their ability to explain their needs, to explain what’s actually going on in their heads, that can be a barrier to stop them from engaging with counselling and health services.
We’re looking specifically at that point and going actually, “Is there something else that we can do here using the health service and using the Global Campus Initiative to help break down some of those barriers”?
Jenny: Thanks, Andy. Jamie-Lukas, I’d like to bring you in on this as well. First of all, it’d be really interesting to know what’s happening at Queens and also any comments that you might have on what Andy has said.
Jamie-Lukas: I thought all of that sounds absolutely incredible. I have to say you hit the nail on the head. I think as an international student, obviously, there is that culture shock. I’m a New Yorker, I moved to Belfast without really knowing what to expect because the only thing that I really knew about the UK was Manchester, because I am such a prolific fan of Coronation Street. I’ve seen every episode dating back to the ’60s of Coronation Street. I expected some of those things when I moved to Belfast and it’s an entirely different space.
I think those informal opportunities to engage with my peers really did provide that pastoral component because I knew that on a Wednesday afternoon, if I showed up to campus, there would likely be a quiz that’s going on, or I knew that on a Friday, there’d likely be an art and craft afternoon. One thing that Queens, I think, that we’ve done fairly well this year is the university has launched an International Student Experience team and it’s fairly student-led.
What we see students do is they produce weekly events, they produce tours around Belfast so they can see all the sites, the Game of Thrones sets, all those fun opportunities that bring students together in a really informal casual setting but also, they look to identify students who maybe are a bit more shy or a bit more reserved. What I’ve witnessed is some of those students who maybe aren’t entirely comfortable with English, I’m finding them show up to events together in groups and start building their own informal community within that community, but also see their English speaking skills strengthened.
It’s a natural icebreaker, it gets rid of the awkwardness, but it also embraces the fact that this is students’ new adventure whether they’ve come from 100 miles away or 6,000 miles away, it really does bring them out of their shelves in a really organic way, which has been, I’d say, really, really cool to watch. Another bit that we’re making some progress on is acknowledging the fact that not every international student is ridiculously wealthy. There’s this perception that all of us come to the UK with a million pounds in our bank account and ready to thrive.
We conducted a survey in the student union at Queens last year, and what we found from that survey was that amongst students’ top mental health concerns were financial pressures, work pressures, and we’ve lobbied the university and Belfast, more recently, to demand greater support and funding for student jobs. If you’re an international student, you are eligible for fewer employment opportunities that’s both while you’re studying and after.
By having part-time jobs for international students, we found that that’s helped a lot of them, again, recognising that the jobs for us that are on offer are usually hospitality roles or other jobs that traditionally don’t pay as much and aren’t really geared towards our academic interests. What the university’s started doing is any job, essentially, that would require any longish-term commitment, they’ve been putting those jobs out to students, and a lot of those are signposted to international students, which has been really, really helpful.
Another aspect is they’re setting funds aside for international students to host and lead their own events. If students don’t feel comfortable participating in some of the events run by the international student guides, there’s a range, especially for postgraduate students, to apply for funding to host their own events, whether it’s something tied to research, something tied to a community event or a film screening, anything to bring those students out.
One other thing that I’m really, really proud of this year is that we created basically a persona profile. We looked at what every potential pain or trigger point could be for an international student from the moment that they apply to the university until they leave, what does it look like when a student contacts admissions and they have a query? Or what does it look like when a student contacts accommodation and isn’t exactly sure where they need to go when they arrive, what are those pain points and how can we provide early interventions?
Then other bits like GP, personally, I had no idea how the GP system worked here. I had no idea how to find and register with the doctor. Having early intervention in as much information as possible provided in student-friendly means, so TikTok videos, small one-page FAQs, those are really handy. One thing I’d encourage universities to do is pursue persona profiling of your students. Every student, look at what it looks like from the moment the student applies and to the moment they walk out of that university to examine their outcomes.
Jenny: That’s a service design approach really, isn’t it, which I’m a huge fan of. It’s really important to get into the heads of anyone who might be coming into your accommodation or using your service, but both of you have talked a lot about the importance of community. I’m getting a sense that building a good inclusive, supportive community and sense of belonging is where it all starts here.
I’m also conscious that you picked up on some of the practical pain points and practical matters around navigating an unfamiliar system. It brought me, in mind, Dom, some of the things that came out in your report, which are around some of the barriers within the system that international students face. Are you able to talk a little bit about that and what students told you?
Dom: Yes, I can. The different understandings, cultural perceptions of mental health of support can be a barrier, particularly with students thinking about implications of if they’re reaching out for support, does that raise questions around their fitness to study? Does that then have implications on their visa? Is there then risk in them reaching out for support? The stealthy approaches that Andy mentioned are going to be useful.
Just on the final point that Jamie-Lukas spoke about around user profiles. I know AI and data analytics has been huge point of discourse over the last few months and I found it incredibly fascinating to follow along to, in terms of providing support -specifically being that using it as a chat tool to tackle loneliness or using AI to deliver CBT treatment therapy to students training it up or just using it for data analytics to identify students in need. I do have a huge worry and there is research that has been coming out around AI obviously taking a very general average approach when understanding populations.
My worry is that when using AI and data analytics, there can be a risk of it exacerbating inequalities that already exist rather than addressing them. I do think we need to be very careful here, not jump under potential silver bullet that’s being advertised to tackle all the needs that exist in student population and think actually, there are some specific subpopulations in student community that have different needs that have heightened risk that we are going to need more tailored approaches to. It’s lots of challenges to grapple with.
Jenny: I feel like AI and data analytics deserves a whole podcast episode to itself. I will take that away and how I think about it. One of the things that you did talk about was the way in which students might present with mental health issues, and that’s something that Bernadette talked about as well. I want to ask you about this, Andy because Bernadette was talking about how international students may not necessarily come forward to ask for support, but actually, it might be their friends or concerned other people who they live with maybe who will come forward and say, “This student needs some support”.
Is that something that you see or do you see international students being willing to come forward for support?
Andy: As I said before, there’s a variety of different things going on because there’s a diversity in that community. I’m very positive about the role that friends and supporters can play in terms of highlighting risk because if we have people who are concerned about somebody but that person isn’t willing themselves to put themselves forward, giving us that ability to be able to make some kind of positive intervention as early as possible is really important.
The difficulty is obviously the student’s willingness to engage with the processes and there’s been a lot of discussion about counselling services, particularly in therapeutic services because there’s sometimes a perception that all you need to do is get them in the room and then you can make them better. Actually, we all know that therapy is not this soothing bomb that you put on, it’s not like a cast that you put on a broken leg.
The person has to meet you and be willing to have that discussion. Even if you’ve got someone who’s got that distress, just sticking them in a counselling room and talking to them is not going to address their problem. There is a bit which is still about, even if we do get those friends putting things forward but how do we get them into a position to best engage with the support that they need and the treatment that they need? The best that we can ever be is as universities, it’s like a kindly uncle. There’s always a power dynamic and that power dynamic is greater for certain cultures because of their cultural perceptions of authority.
The worry that I have around friends and supporters is always the boundaries and that problem that we see of people becoming proxy carers or getting themselves into difficulty because they’re trying to take on the support and making sure that we’re supporting the supporters, making very clear about, “This is the boundary of what you should be doing as a peer and this is okay if you have to pass this over”. Like, “It is not your responsibility for somebody else’s wellbeing. You are not a service professional”.
Jenny: That whole thing about friends taking on that support role, this is certainly something that we’ve seen happening in a student accommodation setting and I’m imagining is just the same right across the sector. Jamie-Lukas, is that something you’ve come across as well that students are taking on that peer support role without having that support and framework to do that themselves?
Jamie-Lukas: Absolutely. I’m so glad Andy brought that bit up about supporting the supporters. I reside in student accommodation. I have a small flat and one of our properties here, so that means every day when I leave work at five or six, when I arrive home, I live in one of the very busy international student residences. That means that students who have queries or who are really anxious, especially at the start of the year I’m the person they recognise.
I’m also the sole international student representative within the students union. That means that those students usually come to me, whether they’re postgraduate or undergraduate. That’s a lot to bear and especially at the holiday seasons when these students are really experiencing those heightened bits of stress. I find joy in the work though. I find it really exciting to be able to signpost them to our wellbeing services or to other resources that we have on campus or virtually.
One of the things that I wanted to note too is that Northern Ireland is very unique in that we don’t have access to a lot of what the rest of the UK has on offer so a lot of international students are hesitant to come forward with any grievances or concerns about their mental or physical or emotional wellbeing because we know that here, at least, there’s a waiting list of about seven to nine months to see a mental health professional.
In the university, we have virtual support systems, but they’re very limited in what they can do or what they can provide. Certainly providing any prescriptions or medication to students is not something that we have access to unless we go private. That’s something that is not obviously very easy for these students to attain and not an easy process for the university to navigate. I’d say that connecting that with accommodation, connecting our wellbeing services with accommodation has helped wonders.
I say that because part of the students union, they actually spent a lot more time in accommodation residences. We have a team called QSU Volunteer and QSU Wellbeing, and those are the parts of the union that are actually out in the space communicating with community partners or local organisations. A lot of their stealth activities, as Dom calls them, they bring students together, they bring staff together. Yesterday, for example, we were working across campus painting.
We were painting old buildings and facilities and painting murals and graffiti and small activities like that they require no commitment, that are super flexible, having those flexible opportunities just goes really above and beyond. This past year, it’s taught me one thing, and that it is staff, who need to be the drivers of these by opening these empowering spaces for students to run and essentially giving students money to empower them to host their own events and engagements.
Jenny: Thank you. I’m taking away that idea of empowering spaces, that’s a really important concept for student accommodation, in particular, how can you empower students to do great things and create that great culture for themselves as well as us doing things with them in their accommodation? We are coming towards the end of the show. We’ve had a really deep and broad conversation about this issue, but I do want to finish by asking each of you, just to give us one practical thing that accommodation teams could take away and do to support international students with their mental health. Dom, can I come to you first on this?
Dom: For sure. The one thing that jumps out at me that our students when doing our research spoke to us about was how much they appreciated any staff members in the university and union and their peers and their accommodation teams too, being mindful of what was going on in their home countries and the difference that made to making them feel welcome and seen and that they belong.
Then, in doing that and doing the work to understand who have you got in your accommodation, in your halls, if you do see there’s something major going on or something that could be a source of stress, feeling confident and empowered enough to proactively reach out and ask if they’re doing okay, I think that can be a really huge step in breaking down the barriers to people getting help.
Jenny: Thanks, Dom. That’s great advice and really important issue to raise. Andy?
Andy: One of the things that I would raise is, yes, I think we’ve seen the growth of parental involvement over the past decade, but one of the things that we have to recognise that not only is this support network for international students now a really, really long way away, some international students don’t feel able to speak to their families when they’re experiencing mental health issues. Dom referenced some of this before, many students come with an understanding of some of the financial sacrifice that their families have had to make to support them to be at university in the UK.
It compounds the pressure that they feel to succeed. It means that they’re not able to admit when they’re struggling and need support so stigma and shame is amplified, it means that they want to more likely hide their struggles. Accommodation team members having that understanding that actually some of the things that will work with UK students and will be part of that just won’t be an option and might actually be something that’s not just a barrier, but an amplification of a barrier when they’re talking to international students.
Jenny: Thank you. That’s great advice as well. Jamie-Lukas?
Jamie-Lukas: Public-private partnerships. Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships. That’s the one thing that I really echo and I think this really applies certainly in the context of Northern Ireland, but I suppose cross the entire sector. Accommodation partners should and can engage actively with local community organisations, cultural community organisations, faith-based organisations, but also private businesses. There’s no reason why we can’t reach out to local businesses and ask them to sponsor community events. It helps them in the long term by building relationships and a positive rapport with the students that contribute to their economies.
Having a strong culture of collaboration is so beneficial in accommodation in the context of international students. Again, partnerships, partnerships, partnerships and also recognising the importance of a representative staff body because there is that culture shock in having folks who can relate to that experience in some small way can really take a student miles away especially during those really stressful exam periods or holiday periods or even those induction weeks where you’re totally overwhelmed and to know that someone else in that room, in that building, knows how you’re feeling, I think that could, I don’t think this is too far of a stretch to say, but it could really save someone’s life.
I remember of myself, my first Christmas here in Belfast, I couldn’t afford to go back home to New York and there was someone in accommodation called Debbie and she volunteered her time to stay with myself and some other international students. Meanwhile, Debbie had a family and children at home, but she spent some extra hours here making breakfast treats with us, silly activities to distract us knowing that we were missing our families back home.