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.
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.
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 Mental Health Issues page.
Be aware of the signs of more significant mental health or substance abuse issues. You can review these signs in the Helping Others 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 online 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.