One of the first academic studies on the mental state of international students enrolled in Chinese universities but stranded outside the country for over two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic has found a widespread prevalence of mental health problems.
The students were of different nationalities registered at different universities in China, but “most participants reported psychological and social factors associated with mental health symptomology or risk”, according to the paper published this month in BioMed Central’s BMC Psychology journal.* The researchers used indicators to assess levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
The researchers, mainly based at Soochow University in Suzhou, eastern China, said “adequate intervention for this group is strongly recommended”.
“We built this research on the urgent need to investigate the mental health status of stranded international students during the pandemic. The significant finding of the current study was that the international travel restrictions were adversely affecting our participants’ mental health,” the research group led by Shandana Iftikhar at Soochow University said.
Hopelessness and uncertainty
The long break in studies led to a rise in risk factors, including a rise in hopelessness and levels of uncertainty. Other factors included worry, loss of interest and focus, lack of support, unemployment and financial hardships and social pressure. There were also behavioural and mood changes and sleep disorders, among other symptoms.
Hopelessness was identified as a risk factor for mental health. Other studies have shown that a high level of hopelessness in youngsters increases the risk of suicide and depression.
“These mental health problems will affect concentration and deep learning, thereby increasing academic stress,” according to the authors. “In addition, we found that the outbreak of the Delta variant in China [in July] led to a further increase in these mental health risk factors,” the authors added.
The participants reported a loss of interest and focus due to the prolonged interruption to their studies. Some stated that they were initially motivated, but their enthusiasm had waned since they were stranded in their countries. Even if they return, concentrating on their studies will be tough for them, and it will take some time for them to do so, the researchers noted.
The researchers received responses from more than 1,900 non-Chinese international students currently enrolled in Chinese universities but who had returned home during the outbreak and had been stranded for over two years. While China has allowed a limited number of students to return, mainly on specially chartered flights, the vast majority of international students are still outside the country.
The China International Student Union (CISU), which has been campaigning for them to return, found that more than half of the respondents (53%) in an online survey of 1,470 students in January reported experiencing “serious mental health issues” due to the Chinese visa ban, as well as hopelessness, stress, depression and anxiety.