The research found that the pandemic had a substantial negative impact on international students, especially those who lived outside their country of origin during the pandemic.
The authors of the report warned that inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic are likely to continue after the pandemic without action.
“This study demonstrated that the mental health of university students has deteriorated substantially during the Covid-19 pandemic,” they said.
“It is worth noting the significant deterioration of foreign students’ mental health, social support and financial security. Although these problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic, all problems were prevalent before the pandemic and may continue after the pandemic.
“All problems prevailed before the pandemic and may continue after the pandemic”
Identifying and implementing adequate preventive interventions, such as building social capital programs at universities and in the community, is “imperative,” the researchers wrote.
“However, more practical knowledge is still needed to identify effective interventions in the current climate and into the future,” they added.
The study used a cohort of 4,407 college students to assess depression, anxiety, social support, inability to afford food, fear of partner, and experiences of discrimination, both before and during the pandemic.
Compared to local students, international students experienced an increase in the likelihood of major depression, low social support, inability to afford food, racial discrimination, and fear of a partner.
“This research had one of the largest domestic and international student samples on the subject and included comparisons of scores across groups on key measures both before and during the pandemic, making it a particularly powerful study,” Samuel McKay, a suicide prevention researcher at Origen, he said PIE News.
“However, it is important to note that the university where it was based was located in Melbourne, Australia, which had some of the longest lockdown/stay-at-home orders of any city in the world. This may have exacerbated the effects on students’ mental health.
“However, these findings are consistent with a smaller study of international students from the UK and the US, which found that students who remained in the country during the pandemic had poorer mental health outcomes, suggesting that the findings may be representative of the experience of overseas students from other places.”
McKay said there was already data from before the pandemic that international students were a vulnerable group who often suffered from poor mental health but were unlikely to seek support.
“So it’s not surprising that the pandemic has exacerbated such problems,” McKay added.
McKay explained that there needs to be more research into how international students can be supported.
“Very few programs or interventions have been tested. For example, when we reviewed the literature on international student suicide prevention programs, we could not find any evidence-based programs anywhere in the world,” he said.
“That means we don’t know what works and what doesn’t, or where we should focus our resources to have the greatest impact. Importantly, any future research should involve international students in design, development and implementation to have the best chance of success.”
“We don’t know what works and what doesn’t”
Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, told The PIE that the biggest challenge facing study destination countries providing mental health services is the lack of cross-culturally accredited counsellors.
“Too often we hear of international students having to attend counseling sessions with Anglo-Celtic counselors who do not understand the many ethno-specific issues students face.
“Issues of sexuality, religion, gender stereotypes and family expectations are often more pervasive among the international cohort of students compared to their domestic peers.”
Honeywood said trying to supplement mental health counseling with poorly trained peer mentors could have “tragic consequences.”
“After the pandemic, Australian universities are now much more aware of the importance of making advising a core service delivery,” he added.
University of Australia chief executive Peter Chesworth told The PIE that moving abroad to study is a big step for anyone and that the organization recognizes the difficulties international students sometimes face.
“Covid-19 brought new challenges. It deprived some students of the opportunity to start their studies in person and prevented others from returning home to their friends and loved ones,” he said.
“Universities have done everything they can to find and connect with all their students during what has been a difficult few years, ensuring students have access to the full range of support services they offer.
“We strongly encourage anyone who is struggling to reach out to their institution for the help they need at any time.”
If you need support, help is available.
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988