February 11, 2014

EDITORIAL: Prioritizing International Student Health

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The number of international students enrolling at Cornell has been increasing annually. Despite a broad push during the past few years to expand mental health resources and to better publicize them, the mental health of Cornell’s international student community has been largely overlooked at the University level. International students — who compose nearly a fifth of the student body — face particular obstacles during their years of higher education that can put them at higher risk for mental health issues compared to their peers. Yet these increases have not been accompanied by mental health programming specifically targeted at international students. We believe it is time for this to change. We urge the University to proactively improve outreach to the international student community to help alleviate risk factors and prevent crises from occurring.

Stress is, of course, a problem for all students, but, for international students, culture shock, language barriers, lack of nearby family and an inability to travel home for short periods of time can make academically or socially difficult periods more strenuous. In an editorial last March, we questioned the proposal of an international student center because, despite the distinct challenges faced by international students, we do not think the answer is social segregation from the larger Cornell community. Rather, a more useful allocation of resources would be to increase mental health initiatives targeted at international students.

Though many students are well-informed about the variety of options available to them, such as the Counseling and Psychological Services offered by Gannett Health Services, cultural norms regarding mental health vary greatly by nation and can prevent international students from viewing therapy as a method of solving their problems. Studies have found that international students significantly underutilize mental health resources; even when they do seek help, they are more likely to end therapy early. While the ISSO does host weekly Let’s Talk sessions — aimed at destigmatizing therapy by offering informal, drop-in counseling sessions — additional steps could be taken to improve accessibility of mental health resources to international students.

During PREPARE, the international student pre-orientation week, programming could be devoted specifically to untangling misconceptions about therapy and educating students about where on campus they can seek help. Additionally, while the ISSO serves crucial functions for international students at Cornell — providing information about travel, visas, taxes, health insurance and more — a more coordinated University effort could be made to improve mental health-related outreach to the international community. The ISSO could coordinate an annual or biannual outreach effort to international students — something as simple as sending a friendly email. The ISSO could also offer workshops about mental health, or de-stressing activities, alongside current programming about obtaining internships and visa extensions.

A coordinated administrative response is necessary to target the multitude of factors contributing to international student mental health risks, including the particularly prevalent cultural aversion to counseling. As the international student community continues to grow — and the University continues to prioritize student mental health — Cornell must act to remedy this weak point in mental health resources.