Taking Students Abroad
When you are the faculty leader of a study abroad experience, you can help your students maximize their learning and growth by encouraging them to take good care of their psychological health. Your efforts to support student psychological health will also contribute to better group dynamics and less stress for you. Here are some recommendations for you as a faculty leader.
Before You Go Abroad
Preparing for Intercultural Transition and Strengthening Coping Skills
You can read recommendations to students for coping with the challenges of study abroad on the Study Abroad page. Encourage your students to review the material there on intercultural transition and on skills for coping with stress and anxiety. Strongly encourage them to review the excellent on-line cultural training material for study abroad on the website of the University of the Pacific. Beyond these general materials, you can help your students cope effectively with the challenges of their study abroad experience by giving them clear information about what to expect in your particular study abroad setting.
Talking to Students About Mental Health Issues
Many college students have dealt with mental health issues at some time in their lives. Many have participated in counseling or taken medication and are now doing quite well. Having these experiences in one’s history certainly does not preclude study abroad. Study abroad programs cannot bar a student from study abroad simply because of a history of mental health issues or treatment. And just as in any other academic course or program to which a student might apply, a study abroad program cannot bar a student from participation simply due to a current diagnosis of a mental health problem, as long as the student’s behavior does not present a risk of harm to self or others and does not stand to seriously disrupt the educational experience.
It is nevertheless important for a student to consider carefully the decision to go abroad if the student has recently been dealing with such issues as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, an eating disorder, alcohol or drug abuse, or recovery from sexual assault or other trauma. The challenges of study abroad are not a cure for these kinds of difficulties and in fact can easily exacerbate them. It is critical for the student to take stock of whether this is the best time to study abroad or whether he/she needs more time to recover, in order to make the most of a study abroad experience. Just as a student probably would not choose to go abroad if he/she had just been diagnosed with a significant medical problem that would require more time to treat effectively, it may not be wise to go abroad when the student is in the midst of dealing with significant depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. You can read suggestions to students who have mental health issues and are considering study abroad (scroll down the page).
You can help a student with current mental health issues think carefully about the decision to participate in your study abroad experience. Here are some suggestions for how you can do this.
- As soon as you have access to the study abroad health forms of the students in your group, review them carefully. Note the questions in Part C (Student Medical Questionnaire), that pertain to mental health issues and treatment.
- If you plan to meet with each student in your group individually, ask the student what he/she needs in order to have a successful study abroad experience. If the student raises significant mental health issues in this general discussion, you can pursue this. If the student disclosed mental health issues on the medical questionnaire, but does not mention this, you can do so, using the suggestions that follow. You may need to schedule additional time for a longer conversation.
- If you do not plan to meet with each student in your group individually, you should consider asking to meet with those students who have disclosed mental health issues or treatment on their health forms.
- Tell the student that you want to meet privately to talk about the disclosed mental health issues. Emphasize that the purpose of this meeting is to discuss how the student can manage these issues well during the study abroad experience.
- Schedule sufficient time (30-45 minutes).
- When you meet with the student, point out on the health form the disclosures you want to discuss. Reiterate the purpose of this discussion. Encourage openness. Emphasize that the goal is to enable the student to have the most fulfilling study abroad experience possible. Establishing this tone for the meeting is critical.
- Ask the student to tell you more about the mental health issues and treatment the student has disclosed on the form.
- Critical questions to ask at some point in this discussion.
- If the student is currently seeing a mental health professional, where/who? How recently?
- If the student is currently taking psychotropic medication, who prescribes and manages this medication? How long has the student been taking the medication? Does the student take the medication consistently?
- How has the student been feeling and functioning over the past few months, in terms of the disclosed mental health issue?
- If the student is currently seeing a mental health professional, has the student talked with this person about plans to study abroad? If so, what was the basic content and outcome of these discussions?
- How does the student anticipate things will go while abroad in terms of the disclosed mental health issue? Are there any factors the student anticipates could trigger increased difficulty with the mental health issue during study abroad? (Examples: bipolar disorder and sleep schedule changes, eating disorder issues and available foods or chance to exercise)
- Help the student understand the challenges and stresses of your specific study abroad course. Help the student know what to expect. Explore these challenges and stresses in relation to the student’s mental health issues and how the student plans to cope with them.
- Be sure you know what mental health resources, if any, are available in your setting abroad and how to access these resources. Tell the student what will and will not be available.
- If the student has not so far had any treatment for the disclosed mental health issue, strongly encourage counseling.
- If the student has a counselor, encourage the student to talk with the counselor about study abroad plans, if this has not yet occurred. Study Abroad shares with Counseling Service the list of students planning to study abroad. If we are seeing a student, we can then initiate a conversation about this. Other students are seeing off campus therapists who may or may not be aware that the student is considering study abroad.
- Strongly encourage the student to talk with his/her counselor about how to deal with any increased mental health difficulties that may occur while abroad, what coping strategies he/she can use, and what kind of support he/she will need and how to get it.
- Ask if the student will give permission for his/her counselor to talk with you, for the purpose of sharing with you the plans for coping strategies and support that the student and counselor have devised and what role you, as the faculty leader, can play in these plans. Also let the counselor know you are requesting this permission.
- Be aware that the role of the counselor or therapist can only be to consult with the student and with you about strategies that will help the student to function as well as possible during the study abroad course. The counselor cannot predict exactly how the student will function during study abroad. Since the counselor’s primary commitment is to the student (by virtue of the counseling relationship), the counselor cannot act as an advocate for you or the Study Abroad Office in trying to convince the student to withdraw from the study abroad course.
- It would be wise for you to talk with the Student Life Office and the Study Abroad Office if you have grave concerns about the student’s mental health issues and the viability of study abroad, especially if the student has not been seeing a counselor or therapist.
- If the student is taking a medication, be sure the student will have an adequate supply, plans to take the medication regularly, and can transport this medication into the country.
- Encourage the student to talk with parents about his/her mental health issues and plans to study abroad.
- If the student has a documented psychological disability and wants to explore reasonable accommodations in the study abroad course, Luther’s Disability Services Office in SASC can work with you and the student around these issues.
- Schedule a follow-up conversation with the student after you (hopefully) talk with the student’s counselor.
- If you are able to talk with the student’s counselor, present the stresses and challenges you see in your study abroad experience and the availability of mental health resources. Share what the student has told you about his/her recent functioning and how she/he plans to minimize any potential adverse impact of mental health issues on the study abroad experience. Ask for the counselor’s thoughts and recommendations for how the student might best deal with mental health issues during study abroad and what role you as faculty leader can plan in these plans.
- Meet with the student again to finalize a plan for coping with any mental health issues that may arise. Ask the student to put this plan in writing and keep it with him/her. Be sure you have a copy.
During the Study Abroad Experience
Student Stress or Anxiety
Expect that students will sometimes feel stressed or anxious as they deal with a new cultural setting. Encourage them to use the coping strategies listed in the Coping With Stress and Anxiety page.
More Significant Mental Health Struggles
Be aware of the signs of more significant mental health or substance abuse issues. You can review these signs in the help section. If you observe one or more of these red flags, talk to the student privately. Let the student know you are concerned. Be specific about what you have observed that has concerned you. Encourage the student to talk and take the time to listen in a non-judgmental and respectful manner. It is important to listen first to the situation and the student’s feelings about it. Try not to offer solutions early in the conversation; problem solving needs to wait until the student feels heard and understood.
If the student’s mental health issues impair the student’s ability to manage the study abroad experience effectively or if these issues significantly disrupt the learning experience of the group, follow the Study Abroad protocol for seeking consultation with the Luther Study Abroad Office and the Dean for Student Life.
If you are worried about the immediate personal safety of the student or others, follow the emergency procedures outlined in the Study Abroad protocol. To learn more about red flags for suicide or harm to others, please review material on our suicide prevention and violence prevention sections. You may also review the Jed Foundation guide for faculty study abroad leaders, “Depression and Suicidal Behaviors in Students Studying Abroad: Identifying Students at Risk”.
Be aware also that students may have a marked psychological response to a traumatic experience such as physical assault, sexual assault, a serious accident, witnessing a traumatic event, or a mental health crisis in another member of the study abroad group. In such situations, it will be important to consult immediately with the Luther Study Abroad Office and the Dean for Student Life and follow the procedures outlined in the protocol.
A student with significant mental health issues or who has experienced a trauma may well need professional mental health assistance, if it is available in your study abroad setting. It would be advisable for you to know in advance what mental health resources exist in your study abroad setting (including emergency resources), how to access them, whether interpreters are available if needed, and how the cost of services can be managed.
Coming home and integrating the study abroad experience into one’s life are part of the complete cycle of the study abroad experience. When students engage in reflection and active strategies to integrate their study abroad experience, they maximize their learning and growth. They also lessen the adjustment challenges that may come with returning home. Encourage your students to take advantage of the re-entry resources in Module 2 of What’s Up With Culture, the University of the Pacific’s on-line cultural training resource for study abroad. You can also encourage reflection and active integration strategies if you gather your study abroad group after you return to campus.