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The importance of prioritising mental health awareness and support for international students studying in the UK

16 November 2020

Sandy Connors, Director of Safeguarding for Study Group in the UK and Europe, shares some practical ways to effectively support international students on-campus and online, during the global pandemic.

In a ‘normal’ year, embarking on studying overseas can often be an exciting yet daunting prospect for international students. Adapting to the culture of a new country, settling into student accommodation, building a network of friends and transitioning to new ways of living and studying can take time. It requires flexibility and perseverance from international students in the best of circumstances.

In a year where the entire world is responding to a ‘new normal’, and the ongoing repercussions of the Coronavirus pandemic, international students personal and social capabilities are being stretched to the limit. At this unprecedented time, students need to work harder than ever before to adapt to new methods of learning and life in a different country, while advancing their education and career prospects.

We appreciate that the learning context this year has been particularly challenging, which is why Study Group has prioritised and rapidly expanded its student mental health and well-being provision. Here are some of the practical ways we are helping students to feel at home in a UK higher education environment and therefore fully able to focus on their studies.

Group Support

  • Induction programme: We run a highly-engaging induction programme for international students whether studying on-campus or online, which provides useful tips and advice on how to thrive from both an academic and extra-curricular perspective. The course also creates an engaging and interactive forum for students to get to know each other and form important social support networks and lasting friendships.
  • Health and wellbeing programme: Study Group offers a range of interactive sessions (in person and virtually), completely focused on healthy eating, keeping physically active and promoting good mental health, such as mindfulness and meditation techniques. These workshops give international students the opportunity to interact, which we know is key to the development of a supportive community. We also provide group seminars and support sessions on an ongoing basis during the academic year, through our network of experienced personal tutors.
  • Social events and activities: We develop and deliver a frequent programme of social events and activities (in person and virtually), designed to make sure that international learners enjoy their overall student experience and successfully integrate into their new programme and broader social setting.

Peer Support

  • Buddy scheme: Study Group introduced a ‘Student Buddy’ scheme, designed for students who are feeling especially lonely or isolated. It offers students who are struggling to effectively integrate into an unfamiliar environment the opportunity to make a vital connection with a supportive peer.

One-to-One Support

  • Welfare checks: As part of our mental health and wellbeing programme, we conduct daily welfare checks with all students under 18 years of age, and with adults identified as being vulnerable, via phone or video calls. We also check-in with adults on a weekly basis to see how they are doing and if any more academic and/or pastoral help is required. Study Group is incredibly open to feedback and can increase welfare check-in frequency if a student requests extra support.
  • Dedicated Welfare Officer and Support Guardian: All students have access to a dedicated Welfare Officer, who they can consult with for academic and/or pastoral related guidance if needed. We also allocate a Support Guardian to individual students under 18 years of age, for those emergency situations where a parent is needed but not available, so the Guardian can step in and support the student.
  • Health information sessions: We host regular health information sessions, covering topics such as how to register with a doctor on arrival in the UK and how to reach NHS (National Health Service) services if required. We also develop and carry out personalised health and wellbeing plans for any struggling or vulnerable student.
  • Additional support: Pastoral support is always available via the student’s personal tutor and we proactively give practical help, such as food and medicine, if a UK-based international student must quarantine on arrival or self-isolate at any point during their studies because of COVID-19 symptoms.

Driving successful student outcomes

As a leading provider of international education, we strongly believe that student mental health and wellbeing should be a key focus for educational institutions around the world so that all learners are able to succeed and achieve their potential. In fact, at Study Group, we have already seen the benefits of making student welfare a strategic priority for our organisation through our excellent progression rates.

Throughout periods of lockdown and increased restrictions in the UK, our international student cohort has excelled academically, with 85% of international students able to progress to partner universities and with five International Study Centres exceeding 90% progression - the Universities of Aberdeen, Lancaster, Liverpool John Moores, Sheffield and Strathclyde. Students have also demonstrated a high level of interaction with their peers online: 89% of students agreed that connecting with other classmates has helped them to learn in a virtual environment, showing a prominent level of engagement and community.

We are inspired by the determination of international students to achieve their educational ambitions, but we recognise that even the most focused learners sometimes need support. Study Group is committed to making sure that our students have someone to talk to and to turn to, helping them along their path to success.

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