Several studies have shown that international students are more likely than their Dutch counterparts to suffer from stress, anxiety and depression due to the pandemic. According to an analysis performed by the Are You Okay Out There? platform, international students attending EUR score considerably worse for emotional, mental and social well-being indicators.

In order to tackle its students’ mental health issues, the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) has got itself an in-house student psychologist, who is available for its students one day per week. In addition, the institute’s students have established ‘Mental Health Working Group’ on their own initiative.

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Anxiety disorder

ISS student Luna suffers from an anxiety disorder and is afraid to go outside due to the coronavirus pandemic. She first began suffering from the disorder in 2013, when she suddenly began to experience panic attacks. “When you’re suffering a panic attack, you can’t breathe, you can’t think straight. It’s as if your entire body shuts down,” she tells us.

Luna is happy to share her story, but for privacy reasons, she prefers using an alias. “The ISS is a small community. Everyone knows everyone, so I don’t want my fellow students to find out about it.” Her real name is known to the editors.

No social contacts

Luna embarked on a Master’s degree at the ISS last September, but did not come to The Hague until January. The Asian student is fairly used to living abroad, having lived in several countries before. “But these coronavirus times are different,” she tells us. “This virus is doing a lot to me. I feel so lonely. I live alone here, without friends and family, and I haven’t seen anyone in a while.”

She does not like to have contact with people or meet them outdoors. “I really fear being infected with the virus, so I only go outside to get groceries. Apart from that, I stay at home,” she says. “My fellow students often ask me to join them when they go out for a walk in small groups. But I’m genuinely afraid to meet people in person, so I always say no,” she goes on to say. “And I really understand that this is not rational, which is why it’s so hard to explain. And it’s ironic, too. I need social contacts every once in a while, but at the same time, I’m so scared to meet people in person.”

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Competitive environment

In order to help students who are struggling, such as Luna, PhD students Daniela Calmon and Brenda Rodriguez Cortes helped establish the mental health working group in 2018. “At ISS, there was a certain awareness about mental health issues among students, but we hardly ever used to discuss them in public,” says Daniela. “In higher education, people feel like they’re in an competitive environment, so there was – and maybe still is – not much room to be vulnerable and reach out for help. People constantly feel the need to prove that they’ve earned their spot.”

While doing a Master’s degree at the ISS, a few years ago now, Daniela found that many of her fellow students were suffering from insomnia and nightmares. “This anxiety was particularly common during exam weeks and when the students had deadlines coming up. The institute had an unhealthy culture but didn’t seem to be aware of that. It was considered normal for people not to sleep for more than 36 hours straight because they were busy writing a paper.”

Reducing the stigma

Daniela and Brenda mainly want the working group to be able to discuss mental health issues and reduce the stigma. “Everyone struggles with their mental health, and we shouldn’t have to wait for a crisis to occur before being able to devote some attention to it,” says Brenda.

The working group organises several different types of activities (which currently take place online), ranging from discussions to peer-group meetings. It has also drawn up a mental health support services document telling students when to ask for help and whom to contact.

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In-house psychologist

The working group had asked for an in-house psychologist since its inception. “The ISS is a close-knit community. It’s great that students help and encourage each other, but mental health issues are something we need to address structurally,” says Daniela.

The ISS has now started taking steps to fulfil that need. In April 2020, the institute appointed Katarina Gaborova as its student psychologist. “We could tell that many of our students were having mental health issues,” says dean of students Martin Blok. “So we urgently needed to hire an in-house psychologist. Our students are less likely to see the counsellors at EUR because they live in the Hague.”

Gaborova, who worked at the ISS as a freelance psychologist before being hired as an in-house therapist, generally treats four to five students per week. “Most of them suffer from increased levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms or depression. Others feel lonely and isolated,” Gaborova tells us about ISS students’ complaints. Everyone who needs her services will be invited for a session within a week. “The long waiting lists for sessions with student psychologists are a problem we’re happy to tackle. Some students need help from an external party, such as the GGZ (department of mental health care – ed.) or a psychiatrist, but I’m happy to try and help them until they can receive help elsewhere.”

So, are there many ISS students who are experiencing severe symptoms? “We’ve had a few cases,” she answers succinctly. She does not want to provide any more information than that, so as to protect the students’ privacy.

Under control

Luna believes her disorder is ‘under control’. “I’ve trained myself to deal with my anxiety disorder, so I don’t need to see a psychologist just yet,” she says, smiling. She has her anxiety under control so lang as she ‘protects herself from the outside world’. She eliminates external stimuli: she has stopped reading the news and does not use any social media.

“I’ve left my degree programme’s group chat, as well,” she tells us. The group chat is used by all ISS students who matriculated at the same time she did. “People on the chat don’t only share important information on the programme but coronavirus news and stories about their private lives, as well. It just got a little much for me at one point.”

Luna is resigned to the fact that she will not get close to her fellow students without in-person classes. “I came here to get a degree, so I don’t need to have fun. I have a lot of bad, lonely days, but I don’t want to feel sorry for myself, because I’m not that bad off.” A few moments later, she adds: “But maybe I’ll move to Berlin as soon as the border reopens. That will allow me to live with a good friend, so I’ll have someone to talk to.”