Protecting physical and mental health on mobility

Protecting physical and mental health on mobility

Overview

Student mental health and wellbeing has been a high profile issue over the last few years, and a number of recent reports published in the area in the past months show that it continues to be an issue of great concern.

In December 2015 an NUS survey found that the majority of students experience mental health issues, but that 54% of them don't seek help. In 2016, the annual Student Academic Experience Survey, published by HEPI and HEA, found that students have lower levels of wellbeing than others in the population, and much more anxiety, and that only 68% of students know how to access their institution's counselling services. Alarmingly, the Office for National Statistics also published figures this year showing student suicides are at their highest level since reporting began in 2007.

While there has been less research specifically on mental illness and mobility, we know anecdotally that mobile students can be a particularly vulnerable group, especially if they go abroad with a pre-existing condition. Mobility can certainly be a hugely positive experience, but it is also an intense and stressful time. Students living and studying, working or volunteering abroad face a range of challenges that can create, or compound, mental health issues. Such challenges include the sudden change of environment, travel stress, culture shock, adjusting to local conditions, being removed from support networks, homesickness, loneliness, and social pressures. 

Universities already have a number of processes and protocols in place to assess and mitigate the risks to student health, including mental health, abroad, that continue to develop as the challenges evolve. A number of these measures are listed in the 'Health on mobility: university practice and protocols' section below. Despite the array of robust protocols in place to protect students, there has been some criticism in the past about the level of support we provide to students studying or working abroad - see for example this Guardian article from late 2014 that interviews study abroad returnees. In 2015, Universities UK produced their own good practice guide to student mental wellbeing in higher education which mentions the challenge universities face in ensuring continuity of support for students studying or working abroad, and highlights the importance of advance preparation. They suggest in some cases it may be advisable to undertake a fit to study process or occupational health review to ensure that the student is well enough to cope with undertaking mobility. 

With the Eramus scheme responsible for about half of all mobilities out of the UK, the European Commission has recently published its own useful Erasmus+ resource on health on mobility, which contains practical recommendations for higher education institutions in facilitating the inclsion of students and staff with physical, mental or health related conditions in Erasmus+. The guide contains good practice examples, and tips on promotion and guidance, selection and monitoring and support. 

Photo Credit: CC0 Public Domain Pixabay