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International students’ social values and backgrounds can influence mental health

International students’ personality traits and cultural values are likely to impact their mental health and ability to respond to stressors when studying in Australia, a new study from the Faculty of Arts at Monash University (@MonashUni) has revealed.

However, maintaining social connections while studying away from their home country can help protect the mental health of international students, particularly through times of uncertainty and stress such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, the study found.

The study, Social Value Systems and the Mental Health of International Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic, published in the Journal of International Students revealed for the first time a link between social values and international students’ wellbeing.

The project was led by Associate Professor Helen Forbes-Mewett from the School of Social Sciences and the paper co-authored with Dr Ashley Humphrey from Federation University Australia.

The study used survey data about mental health during 2020 from 135 students studying at various Australian universities, with students aged between 18 and 30.

Twenty semi-structured interviews also took place.

The paper stated Australian universities are understood to have the highest number of international students per capita worldwide, with the sector contributing over $40 billion to the national economy and sustaining many thousands of jobs. 

“International students arrive at an age of early adulthood, a time when concerns around mental health are particularly pronounced,” Associate Professor Forbes-Mewett said.

“They tend to have more severe mental health concerns than domestic students, with isolation from families and culture, language barriers, financial stress and academic pressures among the key drivers.”

For the study, researchers analysed whether students had originated from individualistic cultures, which tend to prefer independence, pursuing one’s own personal goals above the needs of a community, and maintaining relationships with others when the costs do not outweigh the benefit, or collectivistic backgrounds. 

People from cultures that are highly collectivistic tend to experience high levels of social engagement and connectivity.

Individualism and collectivism were further split into horizontal and vertical planes, where horizontal individualism was defined as valuing freedom, uniqueness and self-reliance.

This differs from vertical individualism, whereby people again value self-reliance, but do so in a more extreme way, essentially perceiving relationships with others as being of low importance. 

Horizontal collectivism was defined as valuing cooperativeness between an individual and their community, and being part of the collective, and vertical collectivism involves a complete submission and dutifulness to the authorities of one’s community.

The researchers found students who displayed horizontal individualistic traits experienced increased depression, while those with vertical individualism reported increased stress.

Those who displayed horizontal collectivism reported having satisfaction with life.

“These insights contribute to our knowledge on how international students from collectivistic backgrounds navigate themselves socially in an individualistic country like Australia, and any repercussions such cultural differences may have for their mental health,” Associate Professor Forbes-Mewett said. 

Researchers said the pandemic may have mediated results and further research was required in a normal context. 

The interviews revealed further insight into international students’ social values, social experiences and mental health, with many students expressing a sense of privilege of being afforded the opportunity to study in Australia.

“While international students’ mental health may have been impacted during the recent uncertainty and stress brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, many expressed gratitude and an appreciation for their new home,” Associate Professor Forbes-Mewett said.

“This is an under-explored component of the international student experience. What we do know for certain is that it’s vitally important for international students to maintain social connections while studying overseas to safeguard their mental health.

“With better mental health, students are able to appreciate the reasons they chose to study abroad in the first place – the opportunity of an international education, experiencing a new culture and working towards their plans for the future.”

The researchers suggested a better understanding of the differences in social expectations of students from individualistic and collectivistic backgrounds might help students settle and thrive, particularly as the pandemic continues to impact Australia.

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