International students’ mental health is an issue that has not received adequate attention in Australia. Despite their significant presence and impact on the national economy, international students as a group have been one of the most oppressed groups in the country. With nearly 900,000 students enrolling in educational programs in Australia yearly, this group accounts for more than $32 billion in the economy. Among the numerous reasons why Australia is a popular choice for education are safety, cultural diversity, high-quality health care, and education. However, in reality, the quality of some of these factors is questionable warranting a need to question the Australian government’s character.
International students, individuals who leave their home countries to pursue educational opportunities in different countries often face similar strains and challenges as their domestic counterparts upon arrival and commencement of their university or college studies.
These stressors and challenges include anxiety related to unfamiliarity with their new environment, academic pressures, financial issues, homesickness, relationship/social concerns, and feelings of isolation. These issues contribute to the development of mental health problems among students.
However, international students grapple with additional uniques challenges and pressures which intersect with and aggravate the challenges mentioned above. Considering issues pertinent to international students’ wellbeing, the context in which we analyze these issues must be highlighted. Firstly, international students come to Australia and to the specific community of the institution in which they have enrolled. They must perform and adjust to an already existing educational standard as well as a cultural, social, and political context that predates their arrival. It is also crucial that we acknowledge existing issues such as racism, discrimination, and particularly in Sydney and other main cities, as well as the individualist culture that can be frightening to both domestic and international students who come from a collectivist background. The recurring political themes around immigration and concerns about terrorism also inform and shape international students’ lived experiences in Australia and affect their overall adjustment.
Social isolation and anxiety are but two issues that affect international students’ overall adjustment to life in Australia. From the perspective of a current international student and person of color, it can be challenging to integrate/socialise in this community. Although Australia appears to be highly diverse, racial undercurrents exist which often hinder inter-
national students from attempting to socialise.
Hence, most international students learn to live with an unfulfilled desire to belong/ fraternise, which is often mingled with a crippling fear of rejection. In addition, international students, like other residents in Australia, are prone to financial issues that can occur suddenly and influence their standard of living. Also, due to strict student visa work restrictions, it can be almost impossible to navigate such situations as the system is not designed to regard complex human situations. Moreover, without a streamlined qualification recognition process, many international students with professional qualifications are excluded from numerous opportunities to increase their skills and secure gainful employment as employers are often not keen to recruit international students.
Also, as international students do not enjoy Medicare coverage, they are left to rely on overseas health coverage which, although expensive, does not provide enough coverage or in some cases, none for crucial needs such as psychologist fees, birth control, optical needs, etc. This is not in line with Australia’s obligations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to provide equal opportunities and healthcare to all persons regardless of residency status, race, age, etc.
These challenges and numerous restrictions pose severe health risks for international students. On the other hand, it is difficult to secure accurate statistics of anxiety, depression, and other serious mental health issues among international students due to low reportage based on a fear that if their condition is revealed, this may threaten their educational plans and residency in Australia. Results from a recent study proved that domestic students were almost three times likely to report about their mental health only six weeks before succumbing to suicide. It is incumbent upon us as individuals and institutions to identify and address prejudice, discrimination, and other forms of oppression we see in our society. We must understand our roles in curbing and/or perpetuating the adverse effects these entrenched sociopolitical structures can have. We must also institute ways in which we can sensitise ourselves and our own communities while welcoming international students and ensuring that they have equal opportunities to live and thrive in Australia.