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    June 2016

    Preparing Students With Mental Health Issues to Study Abroad

    group of college students smiling at camera

    More than 4,500 American students self-identified with a mental disability studied abroad in a recent academic year, according to a survey by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that tracks all international study abroad. To ensure that your institution is adequately prepared to help students with mental health issues in its study abroad programs, consider the following strategies.

    Encourage Early Disclosure

    Study abroad programs should be open to all students, including those with a current or past mental health illness or diagnosis. Welcome them. During the application process:

    • Encourage students to self-disclose any mental health conditions to the study abroad office to allow adequate discussion and preparation before departure.
    • Assure students that disclosure of a mental illness will not affect their application.
    • Consider requiring pre-departure health clearance forms for all students. Include questions about mental health issues.
    • Emphasize that information or health records provided to the study abroad office will be kept confidential.

    Talk With Students and Notify Campus Counseling

    Once students have been admitted to a study abroad program or approved for a study abroad trip, consider these actions:

    • Speak with each student who disclosed a mental health issue about his or her health management plan. Keep a record of what is discussed and the plan for managing mental health while abroad.
    • Provide a list of students accepted to study abroad to your campus counseling center so counselors can identify clients. Counselors may then confidentially discuss the importance of self-disclosure with each student they are treating and 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. Tell students 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 in them about a mental health issue.

    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. Remind them not to diagnose students, but to identify issues and seek help.
    • The institution’s emergency plan.
    • Local resources for both routine and emergent mental health issues.
    • Policies regarding when students may be sent home and who makes that determination.
    • General information, such as the institution’s refund policy and who pays for travel if the student must return home.

    Apprise Students of Their Responsibilities

    Remind all students of their responsibilities when they travel abroad. Students with mental health issues should understand the limits of services the institution can provide. Advise students to:

    • Create a treatment plan, including finding appropriate counseling overseas. Medical malpractice and licensing may prevent U.S.-based counselors from providing services to students abroad other than in crisis situations.
    • Create a crisis plan. Encourage students to create a list of resources and identify local emergency resources if their emotional state deteriorates while abroad.
    • Research whether the prescription drugs they take are legal in the destination country, what documentation they need to travel with the drug, and how to obtain refills. Many countries apply restrictions on importing prescription drugs, and custom controls may prevent parents from mailing them to students.

    Preparation can encourage and allow students with mental health issues to reap the benefits of your institution’s study abroad opportunities.


    Institute of International Education "Open Doors" Data 2013-2014
    Mobility International USA Resource Library

    Mobility International USA Mental Health Preparation Tipsheet

    U.S. State Department "Your Health Abroad"

    University of South Florida "Mental Health Wellness Abroad"

    Northwestern University Study Abroad Office "Mental Health Abroad"

    University of Notre Dame "Mental Health and Crisis Management"

    By Heather A. Salko, senior risk management counsel


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