Pandemic widening mental health support gap in Australia

Speaking at Evidence for action: IEAA research summit 2020 on the impact of Covid-19 on the international student experience, researchers revealed there are still significant gaps in the availability and suitability of support available, which existed before the pandemic, but have been highlighted in 2020.

“VET, TAFE or ELICOS international students don’t know where to go for help”

“Loneliness, stress, sadness, financial stresses, difficulty with communicating English when English is not their first language, experience of bullying, racism and discrimination, feeling unsafe, academic challenges, adapting to a new environment, especially when they are lacking a substantial amount of support system” are all common issues that international students face, said Varsha Devi Balakrishnan masters of Counselling student and a student practitioner at a mental health service based in Victoria.

For international students who overcome initial barriers to seeking help as a result of cultural views of mental illness, they can then face other challenges including the cost of support, the lack of support in their first language, and fears that seeking help will negatively impact on their visas.

While Balakrishnan acknowledged these issues aren’t new, the pandemic has exacerbated them and exposed an extensive gap in the current system, which needs a rethink.

Mental health support needs to be redesigned, based on cultural understanding and how to provide help in a more inclusive and culturally sensitive manner, she added.

It’s vital that international students at private institutions and in the VET sector have greater access to practitioners who offer HICAPS [an instant rebate process] so students aren’t out of pocket for mental health services, given they don’t have the same access to on-campus support services as established universities offer.

“If you come from a well established university, chances are you won’t face this problem.

“But if you come from a private provider, if you’re in the VET, TAFE or ELICOS sectors – which have a lot of international students – they don’t know where to go for help because the institutions are not able to provide health services on campus. So they have to go off campus for help.”

Support services also need to take into account language and culture, recommending optional provision of service in the student’s first language, she continued.

“Given how students lack a support group, the creation of support group sessions rather than one on one sessions [could] be more beneficial to international students,” she suggested.

“Answers can be found when international student voices are included in the designing and the strategising of care frameworks and service delivery,” she added.

“The current system does not work for international students… if you’re really focussed on wanting to help these students, the system needs to change to be more inclusive and adaptable, to promote healthy, healthy, help seeking behaviour in international students.”

Fellow panelist Ashley Humphrey, a lecturer and research psychologist at Federation University also called for a greater focus on fostering social support and inclusion.

His research showed that international students – particularly from eastern countries – struggle with going from collectivistic backgrounds to studying in a very individualistic environment like Australia.

Despite feeling a sense of privilege being able to study in the country and acknowledging the quality of education they have access to, international students can struggle to transition from a culture where community members cooperate closely and share goals, to an individualistic environment where people are more autonomous and independent, like in Australia.

Those students involved in faith based groups, sporting teams or university societies while in Australia are motivated by the desire to build broader social networks, and ingrain themselves into Australian life and culture, his research found.

However, others can find it difficult.

“It comes as a real shock again for the students that have come from context that are very community orientated and have been thrust into this individualistic environment whereby there is no real force pressure to join community groups,” Humphrey said.

“People are very individualistic, like a lot of domestic students for instance, go to university, attend their classes and then leave. So that is a really challenging context for international students to to be thrown into.”

Covid-19 has further impacted students’ willingness to engage, he warned, not only by limiting social opportunities, but also an increased feeling of being the target of hostility.

One student from China is quoted in the research saying, “I still feel like I have that boundary where not many Australians welcome people like us [Chinese], especially because of the recent events. People kept saying stuff to me like, I don’t want to say it, but it was very racist. So I feel like my social connection isn’t very good. I know how to talk when I need to, but it’s still not like back home”.

“A natural by-product of that, of course, is isolation,” Humphrey added.

“Feelings of loneliness and isolation are quite intense in international students”

“The research does identify that feelings of loneliness and isolation are quite intense in international students… naturally, this lack of social support, these feelings of loneliness lead to poor mental health outcomes.”

A more structured approach to increasing social inclusion could improve outcomes for international students, he added.

Interventions that could be implemented would be “forced induction” into groups mixing international and domestic students.

“We certainly think that more attention does need to be paid to this piece of the wellbeing puzzle that challenges international students.”

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