Examining Mental Health Services Abroad

For many years, the siren song of the College’s Study Away program has drawn in students looking to expand their educational experiences beyond “the bubble.” It’s not hard to see why — the thought of earning credits while immersed in a new culture, speaking a new language, and interacting with new groups of people is hard to resist. However, there are more parts to the experience than what initially meets the eye, and students who seek mental health services can find themselves left in the dark. In fact, the overwhelming nature of studying abroad often increases the demand for these services. This is where things get complicated. How can we be certain that students abroad are receiving the quality care they receive on campus from Student Counseling Services?

A recent uproar at Williams College regarding the efficiency of mental health services abroad launched a full-blown investigation into the school’s policies surrounding this issue. Rachel Scharf, a sophomore at Williams, piloted a serial exposé looking at student experiences with study abroad programs both associated with and separate from the College. Each of the programs was officially approved by the College. Speaking with a number of students, Scharf found common shortcomings in nearly every program. Student counseling options tended to have extensive waiting lists, offer exclusively short-term services, or simply not exist. In these scenarios, students are forced seek out private practitioners and pay out of pocket.

Upon reaching out to Scharf, I learned that the issue first arose in February at an event held to discuss issues of identity and experience at Williams. “I attended a panel put on by the Mental Health Committee, a group of students that works to foster dialogue and implement change regarding mental health on campus,” Scharf said. “Incidentally, multiple panelists spoke about negative experiences with mental health abroad and the fact that they felt that these experiences go undiscussed at the College.”

Scharf remarked that she has received overwhelmingly positive reactions to her articles and that they have sparked important dialogues on campus, saying, “for the most part, people at Williams have expressed enthusiasm for the fact that this largely undiscussed topic is being brought out into the open.” And undiscussed is an understatement; this issue can absolutely make or break a student’s experience studying abroad, yet many don’t think about it until they themselves are in need of counseling services. If the weight of an issue like this is felt so heavily by one of our peer institutions, how do we ensure that students are receiving the quality care they deserve?

This raises the question of what counseling services are available for Connecticut College students embarking on a semester abroad. Upon looking into the policies and processes in place to accommodate students abroad, one learns that ambiguity surrounds access to mental health resources. The Office of Study Away does not arrange accommodations for students seeking mental health support. Rather, the individual study away programs with which the office works “have student support systems in place to assist students with various needs,” explained Shirley Parson, Director of the Office of Study Away. She alleged that there is a network of communication between various offices on campus to ensure that students plan arrangements for all their needs before departure.

Students are never asked about mental health service needs upon applying for permission to depart from the school, because this is highly confidential information. To protect student privacy, Counseling Services receives a list of students who have been approved for Study Away programs. The counseling staff speaks with students who may request forms as well as students who are already receiving treatment at the College. The Office of Student Accessibility Services also receives the list of approved students in order to broaden the support network. Parson added that students are advised on their options before departing, noting: “[The Office of Study Away] provide[s] students with information, and I am sure that the offices above do the same, but for more detailed information, [students] would need to contact those offices directly.”

To many, this information may seem like a bunch of redundant formalities. But the question still remains whether or not these arrangements match up to the care students receive on campus or whether they are effective at all. Two Connecticut College students who wished to remain anonymous gave insight on their experiences. One of the students, who returned this spring from a semester abroad, highlighted the stark contrast between counseling abroad and here on campus: “the therapists, yes, therapists, I met with were primarily concerned with the short-term aspects of my mental health. If I didn’t appear to be an immediate threat to myself, my problems were made to sound trivial. I even switched therapists two or three times because after I had an intake appointment with each one, he or she would conclude that since I wasn’t necessarily in danger, I could be moved to the back burner.” The student also mentioned sometimes waiting several weeks to get an appointment with a new therapist.

The second student commented on experiencing a feeling of relief upon resuming sessions with their counseling staff member at Conn. “I’m sure everyone feels relieved when they can finally meet with ‘their’ therapist again, but my experience with therapy was not nearly as constructive when I was abroad, and I really grew to appreciate my resources back at school.”

These students serve as individual examples of the large population of students who are overlooked in the hustle and bustle of study away. This takes me back to Scharf’s initial article, in which she interviewed a student who did not understand how studying abroad could possibly be a negative experience for anyone, since it is so highly regarded by students and faculty alike. When this particular student started feeling mentally unhealthy, feelings of confusion and guilt quickly arose as she realized this was not the experience she expected.

As students, we are all affected by the College’s policies on student counseling. Whether we use the services ourselves or not, it is extremely important to remain vigilant and proactive in order to ensure access to top-notch care during a time that is supposed to be a highlight of our college career. Of course, there are a great deal of variables at play here, such as destination, program, and differences in personal expectations, but the overarching message remains true for all: as a student body, we should continue to de-stigmatize the treatment of mental health both on campus and in the greater world. Starting conversations about this oddly taboo topic is a surefire way raise awareness for the issue and thus improve expectations for solving it.