Starting a conversation

Research has consistently shown that anxiety, stress and depression are the most common mental health issues among international students.

While it’s to be expected that international students suffer some level of anxiety and stress, you may want to start a conversation or consult with someone else if the student:

  • is showing a change in behaviour
  • is showing signs of anxiety or depression
  • has lost lots of weight quickly
  • has become dependent on alcohol, drugs or gambling.

When responding to mental health issues, it is important to know your limits. If someone’s safety is at risk, or if they or someone else has told you about a dangerous situation, seek professional help immediately.

Tips for starting a conversation

It can be hard to know when to worry about a student: what is normal, age-appropriate behaviour, and when you should step in.

Trust your instincts, and remember that you don’t have to be a mental health expert to start a healthy conversation with a student you’re concerned about. Don’t be offended if your student feels more comfortable speaking to someone else.

If a student comes to you to talk about something, stop what you’re doing and listen. Believe what they have to say, and take them seriously.

Before the conversation

Set aside time when you won’t be distracted or interrupted. Consider writing down in advance what you want to talk about.

Consider sitting side-by-side with the student, which implies you’re working together to achieve the same goal. Another option is to go for a walk or a drive.

Starting the conversation

Tell the student why you’re concerned (“I’ve noticed that…”). Use open-ended questions (“Why don’t you tell me how you’re feeling?”).

Use ‘I’ statements to let the student know how you feel about what’s happening to them (“I feel…” or “I’m worried…”).

Allow the student to lead the discussion at their own pace, without any pressure to speak or to tell you anything they aren’t yet ready to talk about. You can show the student you’re listening carefully by repeating what they’ve just said.

Be aware of your body language. For example, crossing your arms suggests the student is in trouble. Many cultures put more emphasis on body language than what’s being said.

How to respond

Let the student know you understand. Don’t judge, blame or criticise them, and let them know you’re always there to talk to. Keep the conversation friendly and informal.

Stay calm. If other factors are influencing how you’re feeling, take a break.

Help the student to find their own solutions. If the student is stressed, for example, exercise and maintaining a healthy diet may help.

If necessary, offer to help the student find professional support or other support networks, such as talking to family and friends. Offer to go with them, but let them make their own decisions.

You may be the first person the student has opened up to. Respect the student’s privacy, and be guided by the student about what can and can’t be shared with others.

Know your limits. If someone’s safety is at risk, or if they or someone else has told you about a dangerous situation, seek professional help immediately.

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