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    December 2019

    Prepare Students With Mental Health Issues to Study Abroad

    American students self-identified with a mental health issue routinely study abroad. This can prove challenging if a student suffers a mental health crisis or does not have access to care. To ensure your institution is prepared to help students with mental health issues in its study abroad programs, consider the following strategies.

    Encourage Early Disclosure

    Open your study abroad programs to all students, including those with a current or past mental health illness or diagnosis. 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 disclosing 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: Speak with students 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 the discussions and students’ plans for managing mental health while abroad.
    • 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 then 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. 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. 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. Remind them not to diagnose students but to identify behavioral or personal 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.

    Tell Students About Their Responsibilities

    Remind all students of their responsibilities and the limits of services the institution can provide during study abroad. 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, including a list of mental health resources and local emergency resources if their emotional state deteriorates while abroad.
    • Research whether prescription drugs they take are legal in the destination country, required documentation to travel with the drugs, and how to get refills. Many countries restrict 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 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"
    University of Notre Dame "Mental Health and Crisis Management"

    More From United Educators

    Crisis Response in Higher Ed Study Abroad: A Guide for Conducting Tabletop Exercises
    Prepare for Medical Evacuations Abroad

    By Heather A. Salko, senior risk management counsel


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