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A Hidden Struggle: COVID-19 and International Student Mental Health

6 July 2020

Content warning: mental illness, racism

Disclaimer: the students interviewed for this piece wished to remain anonymous. Each student has been assigned a letter in place of their name.

According to international students from the University of Melbourne, the COVID-19 crisis, in particular its effects on their academics and financial situations, has had a detrimental impact on their mental health. 

N, a second-year Arts student unable to return home due to national border closures, described the experience as “devastating”.

“I was basically alone in my room for two months, in a house that was in no way conducive to learning,” they said. ‘I’m quite an anxious, depression-prone person. I rely on work and extra-curriculars to manage my mental health, and to keep functioning. My grades suffered, and that only made things worse. I began having persistent panic attacks, and cried often.” 

N has been attending online counselling sessions provided by the University’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Despite being grateful for the sessions, N believes they are inadequate as a long-term solution. 

“They only give you six weekly hour-long sessions and that just didn’t cut it. I didn’t want to see a doctor because my parents are quite conservative and didn’t like that. I also didn’t know whether my insurance covered the cost of potential medication.”

J, a second-year psychology student, said that she had been experiencing anxiety over the health of her grandparents back home, but confessed that she too had chosen not to use the University’s counselling services. 

“CAPS was difficult to get hold of even before COVID, so to be honest, I didn’t even give it a try when I needed it during this period,” she said. 

Srishti Chatterjee, one of the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Disabilities Office Bearers, said that they had heard similar stories from many international students. 

“The experiences are heartbreaking, and as officers, the most we can do is recommend services, and direct them to people who can help,” they said. 

“The University has infrastructure, has money, and how little they do is appalling”. 

Allison MacDonald, a senior counsellor at CAPS, believes the counselling service is beneficial to international students. 

“We know International students utilise and value CAPS and in fact attend proportionally in greater numbers compared to their representation in the University community,” she said. 

MacDonald also maintains that the service is committed to supporting international students during the pandemic through increasing its services to include tailored webinars and telephone screening for students who failed to book an appointment on the day to prioritise urgent access. 

COVID-19 has also had a significant economic impact on many international students. Despite ongoing demands from students, international students, in particular, the University has maintained that it will not be reducing fees for Semester 2 or refunding any percentage of the fees paid for Semester 1. 

“Finances have always stressed me out, but this semester especially, I’ve been feeling more guilty, given that we’re paying large amounts for online classes, and I haven’t been performing at my best,” said P, a third-year psychology student.

The University has instead created an Emergency Support Fund (ESF) to assist international students experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic.However, many students reported long wait times before their applications were processed. 

According to L, a student who lost her sole source of income due to COVID-19, financial insecurity has been an acute source of mental strain. 

“The aid from uni took over a month to arrive. In the meantime, I had to rely on my housemates and food rescue organizations to survive,” she said. “I couldn’t apply for the government fund because my previous job was a dodgy, cash-in-hand one where I was being underpaid, so they wouldn’t give me the necessary documentation to prove they’d laid me off due to COVID.”

The pandemic has also been accompanied by the heightening of anti-Asian and anti-international student sentiment. Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated in early April that if international students were not in a position to support themselves, they should simply return to their home countries. Adding to this, two University of Melbourne students were physically assaulted in the CBD in a racially motivated attack on 15 April.

Students mentioned that this sense of antagonism had contributed to their mental health difficulties. R, a veterinary medicine student, commented that while being away from loved ones was taxing enough, doing so “in a country and at a university where you don’t feel supported [was] incredibly difficult and draining on [her] mental health”.

On top of financial stress, academic concerns were a recurring source of anxiety for international students.

After being stranded alone in Melbourne due to border closures, second-year commerce student, V confessed that the abrupt transition to online classes had left her feeling “lost”. 

R, who is in the final year of her course, also commented that the reduction of practical sessions was a major cause of stress. 

“The final year of the veterinary program is when students receive most hands-on clinical experience, thus I fear that missing several months of the year, I will not be prepared for clinical practice upon graduation.” she said.  

Ultimately, many international students said they felt the University could have done more to support them and their mental health during this period. 

S, a second-year Arts student, expressed frustration with the University’s response to the pandemic. 

“We’re just economic money machines. We pay 3-5x more for our degrees and get ZERO benefits. The University could have stood with us. There could have been solidarity, there could have been relief in terms of fee, food distribution, and many other things,” they said. 

R added, “I’m disappointed with the University’s treatment of overseas students. They are one of the largest sources of revenue for Australian universities, and as such, their special needs cannot be ignored.”

A spokesperson for the University told Farrago:

“We continue to actively reach out to international students and students who are most likely to face very challenging circumstances to provide support through a range of health and wellbeing services including Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Safer Community Program, Health Services, and chaplaincy. Our CAPS resources have seen a four-fold increase in use during COVID-19 and the University has boosted resourcing to support the demand”. 

If you have been impacted by the issues raised in this article, or would like to seek further mental health aid, we encourage you to look into these services:

Featured image from the University of Melbourne ImageBank, “University Services Signage”, taken Oct 21, 2016 10:11:38 AM.


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