Steps to Provide Mental Health Support on an Education Abroad Program

Temple in India in front of river with many people sitting on steps and going into the water. Many bright colored shirts lay to dry on top of platform.
Follow these steps to support the mental health of students in international education.

Locate Mental Health Resources

Compile a list of mental health resources for students. Work with host country colleagues to identify local mental health professionals, clinics, pharmacies, peer support groups and disabled people's organizations. In some cases there are online resources through which individuals can access licensed therapists or volunteers trained in active listening and suicide prevention. A collaboration between the US education abroad and key campus colleagues such as the counselling center,the disability resource center, and the international health insurance provider will be essential.

Accessibility Audit

Audit the mental health resources on the education abroad program to make sure that they are accessible. Will it be possible for a deaf student to receive interpreting services at a therapy appointment? Is it possible to access counseling via text message? Can blind people using screen readers access online therapy resources? Are therapists educated in the social model view of impairment?

Click here for a discussion of the different disability models.

Many forget that individuals with mental health disabilities can have other impairments that could impede them from seeking help if accessibility is overlooked. Be sure to make this part of your planning efforts.

It might be that some services are not accessible to everybody. For example, a local therapist might not be willing to include a sign language interpreter in therapy sessions. In addition, remember that as with other languages, different countries use different sign language and interpreters may not know American Sign Language used in the US, and US students may not know the host country sign language. Identify at least one mental health counseling option that works for every student on the program, and make sure that all of the options include accessibility-related information, so that individuals can make a plan for seeking support without being thwarted in their efforts.

Train Staff

It is critical for education abroad professionals, faculty or staff members leading education abroad programs, , on-site colleagues and host families to possess a general understanding of mental health conditions that can affect students abroad. They should know how to identify a student in distress, to respond to a mental health emergency situation and to make an appropriate referral.

Educate Program Participants

Once the resources are in place and student support staff are trained, the final step is to ensure that participants are informed of mental health challenges that they should expect while abroad and how to get help if they experience symptoms of mental illness.

Educate participants with a comprehensive orientation prior to the program including:

  • Health, safety and security, environmental, political, cultural, legal, and religious conditions in the host country.
  • Host country legal and cultural considerations regarding all aspects of diverse student identities including individual differences and group/social differences such as gender, sexual orientation, race, class and religion.
  • Cultural adjustment,process
  • What to do if they think a fellow student is in distress, including a student who may be suicidal,
  • Steps for organizing a personal wellness plan,
  • When to seek support, and
  • Ways to seek support through the resources that the program has in place.

Be sure and share this information through:

  • The student advising and application process,
  • Program materials,
  • Pre-departure orientation
  • On-site orientation and check-ins with students throughout their time abroad, and
  • Support and assistance for returning students

It is also important to give students opportunities to disclose through:

  • The program advising process
  • A confidential process to obtain and review student health information
  • A process for requesting reasonable accommodations for disabilities, including mental health disabilities

Personal Wellness Plan

Encourage students to formulate their own wellness plans before departure. A wellness plan encourages students to think about the coping strategies that work for them, while strengthening their sense of personal efficacy. Wellness plans should be optional, though they can be beneficial especially for students who have already disclosed mental health concerns. For an example of a wellness plan, take a look at the form from Augsburg University under related links.

Conclusion

These steps represent a summary of the necessary actions to provide mental health support on overseas programs. Be sure to also review additional articles on the website, along with the NAFSA: Association of International Educators publication Addressing Mental Health Issues Affecting International Education Participants: