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Nearly 50 international education professionals gathered at Lehigh University for an event co-hosted by the Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA)

Most college students nationwide who experience some sort of significant issue during a study abroad program have remained overseas until their studies are complete, according to data gathered by the Forum on Education.

Only 12% of students who become physically ill during such a trip come back as a result. Only 9% of those physically assaulted while abroad return home. Even when a student is arrested while studying abroad, only half of them come back home early, according to the data.

However, among students who experience significant mental health distress, 66% withdraw early and return home. This reflects how important mental health impacts are when it comes to study abroad programs in colleges throughout the nation and the world.

“One of the most surprising findings in this data was the number of students who withdrew because of mental health issues,” said Jennifer Fullick, Director of Health, Safety, and Security with the Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA). “Before this research, we would not have thought that would be the top reason for withdrawing from a study abroad program, which shows why discussions about mental health are so important.”

Gathering and Sharing Information

A group of people at several tables at Lehigh University
More than 50 people attended the discussion at Lehigh Univeristy about mental health issues in study abroad programs.

Nearly 50 international education professionals from 13 colleges and universities gathered at Lehigh University’s Iacocca Hall on Jan. 17 for a workshop and discussion about mental health in study abroad settings, organized by IFSA and Lehigh’s Study Abroad program.

IFSA is visiting and collaborating with institutions around the country to discuss this topic and discern evolving challenges related to mental health in study abroad, as well as to consider new ways of supporting U.S. students while studying abroad following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fullick said IFSA ultimately plans to develop materials providing higher education professionals more information on this topic. The organization also plans to develop a roadmap for best practices to support mental health abroad, and build a mental health resource framework and publication for mental health abroad for higher education students

“This is really an effort to have good conversations and get people together,” Fullick said. “We talk to a lot of schools and hear the same curiosities and questions, so what better ways to address than to get everyone together and talk about it.”

Collaborating with Partners

Katie Radande speaking to a crowd at Lehigh University
Katie Radande, Director of Study Abroad at Lehigh University, speaking about mental health topics

Katie Radande, Director of Study Abroad at Lehigh, said she works closely with various faculty and staff members to prepare students for studying abroad, which includes identifying any potential mental health challenges in advance. They also vet the students at the time of application, and monitor students prior to departure to ensure their status doesn’t change.

“It’s really helpful in making sure our students have a successful study abroad experience,” Radande said. “Or, in some cases, they may decide they don’t want to go abroad, because we don’t want them to go and then not have a successful experience. Either way, we are here to help guide them as best we can.”

Attendees at the event included representatives of Bryn Mawr College, Bucknell University, Cedar Crest College, Georgetown, Gettysburg College, Haverford, Lafayette College, Lehigh University, Moravian College, Muhlenberg College, Swathmore College, Temple University, and Thomas Jefferson University.

Gathering and Sharing Information

Jennifer Fullick speaking at Lehigh University
Jennifer Fullick, Director of Health, Safety, and Security with IFSA, speaking at the event

Common mental health challenges among study abroad students include stress, depression, ADHD, anxiety, or stress related to social interaction. About 56% of students overall have experienced chronic stress in college, Fullick said, and 3 in 4 students say stress is negatively impacting their ability to learn, focus, and do well academically.

“They’re in college, so of course they’re going to experience stress; that won’t ever go away,” Fullick said. “So, knowing that stress is always going to be there, that means we need to think collectively about how we can help our students prepare for all the stress that comes with studying abroad.”

Half of students who rate their mental health as poor – or report having a mental health condition – have never accessed campus mental health resources, Fullick said. However, nearly 75% of students surveyed by IFSA identified reducing stress as a top health and wellness goal.

“The good news is college students want the support we can provide,” Fullick said. “Students want that exciting change that comes with studying abroad. They want different experiences. So, with that in mind, there are lots of areas to explore for how we can change healthy habits for students.”