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International students: can they thrive in a strange land?

International students: how can they thrive in a strange land?

Coming to study in another country with an unfamiliar culture and often a different language can be daunting for international students, but the right support at the right time can make all the difference.

Hosted by the International Office at the University of Auckland, a workshop focusing on international students’ mental wellbeing is happening this Thursday 28 November in the Sir Owen G Glenn Building at the University of Auckland Business School.

One of the keynote speakers and an expert in this field, Dr Helen Forbes-Mewett from Monash University in Melbourne says there’s been a significant increase in the number and severity of students suffering with mental health issues in general, but the problem is exacerbated for international students.

“They’re dealing with cultural loneliness, different cultural approaches to mental health, their family’s lack of understanding of mental health, financial pressures, pressure to succeed and the shame and stigma associated with mental health issues,” she says.

In particular, she says students who come from “collective societies” as opposed to those from Western individualistic societies face big cultural challenges.

“Western societies provide excellent support services but they are unfamiliar and not what is expected by students from collective societies, which includes many Asian countries where large numbers of international students are from. International students are looking for something different to what is provided.”

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She says the best response to these issues is complex and still an area where more research is needed.

“What can be provided will improve in time with greater knowledge of students' backgrounds, their perceptions of mental health, different cultural understandings and the views of their families; it cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.”

She believes much more pre-departure preparation needs to be in place, with culturally diverse counsellors and other service providers who have an understanding of students’ backgrounds.

“We need to learn more about our international students, their experiences, challenges and provide 'go-to' places where they feel safe to confide in others.”

Dr Forbes-Mewett, who has conducted research on international students in Australia, the US, the UK, and China, will be presenting the “big picture” by comparing what’s provided for international students in the US, the UK and Australia. She will also present findings from a recent study about perceptions of mental health from the perspective of Singaporean students.

“I will be keen to know where New Zealand thinks it may fit within this framework.”

And while there’s no doubt this issue holds significant challenges for universities and other institutions, the good news is there’s been a positive shift in perceptions of mental health and also in responses to the problem, she says.

“I believe the time is right to talk openly about this issue and to keep the momentum up, and I’m delighted to see the University of Auckland and other institutions putting the issue high on their agendas.”

At the workshop, Dr Forbes-Mewett will be joining other presenters Kelly Atherton, the manager of the International Student Support team at the Victoria University of Wellington and Crystal Li, who came to New Zealand as an international student from China in 2003.

Ms Atherton has recently completed a Master of Health Research looking at the mental health and help-seeking preferences of Chinese international students at Victoria, and since completing her degree, Ms Li has worked directly with international students at Victoria and is currently the international student and insurance adviser.

International students and their mental wellbeing is a free workshop open to all academic and student support staff. It will be held thisThursday 28 November from 10.15am to 3pm in the Decima Glenn Room, Level 3, Sir Owen G Glenn Building, University of Auckland Business School, 12 Grafton Road, Auckland. Registrations are now closed.


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