3 Mental Health Tips for International Students

International students have access to U.S. university support services to help them adjust and maintain balance.

Being far away from home in a new academic and social environment can affect a new international undergraduate or graduate student in different ways. While prospective international students may not consider mental health services when researching U.S. colleges and universities, experts say it is important for them to know what support is available before they choose a school.

Many U.S. university websites have separate pages for international students about their mental health support services, such as Cornell University’s Cornell Health page, the University of Kentucky’s counseling center page and Oregon State University’s International Student Support Program page.

Some schools discuss these services before students step foot on campus. For example, before accepted international students arrive at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, they are given a mandatory online orientation that covers issues that international students often face like cross-cultural adjustment, stress and loneliness, says Alisa Eland, associate director for counseling and advising at the university’s International Student and Scholar Services Office.

“The orientation also includes an introduction to the types of support students can receive, including counseling,” Eland says.

Here are some ways prospective international students can plan to look after their mental health at a U.S. university:
  • Join social clubs and groups.
  • Consider meditation or prayer.
  • Explore counseling services.

Join social clubs and groups. Experts say students should consider joining groups related to a student’s major, interests or hobbies, culture, language and religion to minimize social isolation.

Three months into her doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, Ndilimeke Nashandi from Namibia learned from a peer about a group of African graduate students and friends from other countries who meet informally on a quarterly basis.

“I joined the group and we share ideas on some of the resources that are available at the university, news from our home countries, dance to music from various countries and learn about events that might be of interest,” Nashandi says.

The group’s exposure to Minnesotan life helped get her through social interactions, she says, such as understanding what people mean when they ask, “Are you OK?” Nashandi says sharing music with the group helped her feel connected and gave her a sense of belonging, and that she paired up with a student from the group to attend self-care activities such as using the gym.

“Knowing I have a group to consult with helped me feel understood,” Nashandi says.

While some students may find groups and clubs through other students, Eland says sometimes students may be more comfortable using the International Student and Scholar Services office as a resource because they know staff are there to help them in general.

Information about clubs and groups can often be found online. For example, on the International Student Services website of the University at Buffalo—SUNY there’s a list of more than 160 undergraduate student clubs, ranging from Students for Justice in Palestine to the Bollywood Dance and Drama Club. Each listing has the contact information for the club’s coordinator, and there is no limit on the number of clubs students can join.

The University of Kentucky, for instance, has a Relaxation Room that is available for all students on a drop-in basis. Mary Bolin, director of the counseling center and a licensed psychologist at the university, says the room was created several years ago to ease access for students who may be hesitant to receive help due to stigma, cultural factors or being unfamiliar with mental health support services.

“The Relaxation Room also provides multiple options to unplug and practice positive self-care such as meditation, yoga, massage chair, creative art projects or biofeedback training,” Bolin says. Biofeedback training helps students become more aware of their internal responses to stress or other emotional experiences, according to the school’s website.

Ohio State University—Columbus has an Interfaith Prayer and Reflection Room; the space features two ablution rooms and two meditation rooms. Pennsylvania State University—University ParkRutgers University and Northwestern University also have prayer facilities, with Penn State having the largest multifaith center on a U.S. campus, according to the school’s website.

Apart from on-campus facilities, students can also seek spirituality off campus. Nashandi learned that Minnesota has a Lutheran tradition and attends the University Lutheran Church of Hope, which is located on the edge of campus and serves the student population.

“I figured that having that connection would help me keep a good balance at the university,” Nashandi says.

Explore counseling services. At some schools, counseling services can be offered through an interpreter or students can request a counselor from their ethnic background.

Jennifer Burroughs, a spokeswoman for the University of Maryland—College Park, says the school’s counseling center has a diverse staff, including therapists who speak Arabic, Gujarati, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Burroughs says in the next academic year, the center will also have counselors who can provide services in Cantonese, Russian and Ukrainian.

About 20 percent of students each year use Cornell University‘s counseling services, according to the New York school’s website. Cornell has a an International Student Support Group for undergraduate, graduate and professional international students that meets every Tuesday afternoon led by two facilitators, one of whom is a psychologist from India.

At Oregon State University, counseling services include individual, group and couples counseling and after-hours crisis support, says Ian Kellems, director of counseling and psychological services and a licensed psychologist at OSU.

In recent years, Kellems says the counseling center has been working to diversify services for international students “who may be coming from cultures and health care systems for which traditional psychotherapy is incongruent or nonexistent.”

Last fall Oregon State added a single session clinic where an international student with a specific problem, such as trouble adjusting to U.S. dating norms, can meet with a counselor for 50 minutes and leave with an action plan, with no expectation of follow-up.

Kellems says the school appreciates what a big transition it can be to study in another country and has numerous counseling center staff who were international students themselves and understand what kind of support is needed.

“International students have unique needs, and it is our responsibility to support them here so that they can succeed academically and personally,” Kellems says.

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By Keashla Marengo
Keashla Marengo