Bridging mental health gap across oceans: The College’s duty to improve access to psychological supports for students studying abroad

When students from the College study abroad, they face an alarming discrepancy in access to mental health services compared to what they can access in Williamstown. Difficulties in procuring care and a lack of communication about services offered by particular programs leave students abroad with fewer options for addressing their mental health needs. Students’ mental health issues should have as little bearing as possible on their decision concerning whether or not to study abroad. The College has a responsibility to address the gap in mental health services, especially at the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford (WEPO).

At WEPO, students pay roughly the same tuition as if they were at the College, with a slightly decreased fee for boarding, and live in a College-owned property. However, students must contend with mental health services that do not approach the quality or accessibility of those at the College. Services through Oxford have long enrollment waiting lists and short maximum durations for counseling while providers through the National Health Service (NHS) in England are overburdened and have similarly long wait times for care. Seemingly, the best option for students at WEPO in need of counseling is to rely on private providers, but the high costs of such services can be prohibitive.

The College must address the paucity of quality mental health resources at WEPO. If quality care is not being delivered through the existing structures, the College should commit to funding sessions with private providers to ensure that students have opportunities to promptly access care and sustain relationships with providers whenever and as long as and they need them. WEPO students attend a program run by the College and thus deserve psychological care comparable with what they could access in Williamstown.

Furthermore, the College can do more to increase the transparency of mental health options at various study abroad programs. We commend the College for increasing the availability of mental health information about WEPO in its pre-departure information sessions, but it can do more to expand access to information for other programs. Information about mental health services should be easily available to students as they consider and compare different programs and locations. One tool which many students use to evaluate the merits of particular destinations and programs is the collection of surveys from students returning from studying abroad. Each survey includes evaluations of both the academic experience of the program as well as the lifestyle and ease of living in the country or city where the program is located. The Office of International Education and Study Away should create a section on the survey that is devoted to the assessment of mental health services, including the ease of accessing the services. Students applying to popular programs would then be able to use the evaluations as part of their decision processes. Since accessing care across different cultures and languages is difficult, the College should also consider adding pre-departure education on mental health resources for those going abroad. By increasing the visibility of resources (or relative lack thereof) on particular programs, students can be better prepared to deal with mental health while abroad.

Students who choose to study abroad face many challenges, and it is imperative that the College strive to ensure that students have sufficient access to mental health services. By implementing solutions during both the pre-departure process and students’ times abroad, the College can begin to bridge the gap in mental health services and affirm its responsibility to providing access and care for all students.