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Prepare Students With Mental Health Issues to Study Abroad

Heather Salko, Esq.
October 2020
Strategies to prepare higher ed students before they depart and assist them while they study abroad

Students self-identifying has having a mental health condition routinely study abroad. This can prove challenging if a student suffers a mental health crisis or lacks access to care.

To ensure your college or university can help students with mental health issues in its study abroad programs, take these actions.

Encourage Early Disclosure

Open your study abroad programs to all students, including those with current or past mental health illnesses or diagnoses. During the application process:

  • Encourage students to self-disclose mental health conditions to the study abroad office. This will allow for adequate discussion and preparation before departure.
  • Assure students that disclosing mental illnesses won’t affect their application.
  • Consider requiring pre-departure health clearance forms for all students. Include questions about mental health issues.
  • Emphasize confidentiality of information or health records provided to the study abroad office.

Speak With Students and Notify Campus Counseling

Once students are admitted to a study abroad program or approved for a study abroad trip, speak with those who disclosed mental health issues on their application. Ask about their health management plan — not the condition itself — to avoid focusing on a potential disability. Keep a record of discussions and students’ plans for managing mental health while abroad.

Also provide your counseling center with a list of students accepted to study abroad so counselors can identify and meet with any clients listed. Counselors may confidentially discuss the importance of self-disclosure (for those who haven’t disclosed their condition) with each student they are treating as well as how studying abroad may affect the student’s condition and treatment.

Educate Students, Faculty, and Staff

Explain to all students the impact studying abroad may have on mental health issues. In pre-departure orientation sessions, discuss culture shock and general mental health issues. Emphasize that new experiences, while exciting, may be stressful and can exacerbate current mental health conditions or trigger new ones.

Also consider training students to identify others in distress and what to do if another student confides to them about a mental health issue. In addition, share general examples of how students with mental health issues have successfully studied abroad.

Create a plan to deal with mental health issues that may arise. Train faculty and staff on:

  • Signs of student mental distress and general responses — reminding them not to diagnose students but to identify behavioral or personal issues and seek help
  • Your institution’s emergency plan
  • Local resources for routine and emergent mental health issues
  • Policies about when students may be sent home and who makes that decision
  • General information, such as your refund policy and who pays for travel if the student must return home

Tell Students About Their Responsibilities

Remind all students of their responsibilities and the limits of services your institution can provide during study abroad. Advise students to:

  • Create a treatment plan. The plan would include finding appropriate counseling overseas. Medical malpractice and licensing may prevent U.S.-based counselors from providing services to students located abroad except during crises.
  • Create a crisis plan. Include in the plan a list of mental health resources and local emergency resources if the student’s emotional state deteriorates while abroad.
  • Research whether prescription drugs students take are legal in the destination country. Students also should understand required documentation to travel with the drugs, as well as how to get refills. Many countries restrict importing prescription drugs. Custom controls may prevent parents from mailing them to students.


More From UE

Crisis Response: A Library of Tabletop Exercises

Prepare for Medical Evacuations Abroad

Additional Resources

Institute of International Education: Open Doors Data 2019

Mobility International USA: Resource Library

Mobility International USA: Mental Health Preparation Tipsheet

Department of State: “Your Health Abroad”

University of South Florida: “Mental Health Wellness Abroad

Northwestern University Study Abroad Office: Mental Health Abroad