Monday, February 23, 2009

The Risky Business of Study Abroad

PORTLAND — Plenty of issues other than the economy are keeping study abroad professionals, parents and students awake at night. 

Two of them under discussion at last week’s Forum for Education Abroad conference here were the mental health and risky behaviors of the more than 200,000 U.S. students who are taking part in study abroad each year. Institutions are particularly wondering what they can do to help students who struggle with emotional and behavioral issues when they're thousands of miles from home for several weeks or months.

“We’ve had many students who get there and decide that the stress is just unbearable for them,” said Mike Brody, director of health and counseling at Portland’s Reed College. “It’s exacerbating underlying conditions for them, and they come back.”

The mental health of abroad students, as well as their alcohol consumption and substance abuse, were the top concerns of study abroad professionals in the Forum’s 2008 State of the Field study. Dozens of participants Friday at a panel on the topic recounted stories of problems caused by drinking and other risky behaviors, as well as student mental health.

Reed and Washington State University are among many schools that have started prescreening students for warning signs of potential mental health and behavioral issues that students may face on study abroad.

“We’ve never prevented a student from traveling,” said Brody. “What we have done is have difficult conversations with families and talk about shared responsibility — the need for the family and the student to understand that not only is this inherently risky because travel is risky, but risky for this student because of the health situation that they bring to the table.”

Patricia Maarhuis, a prevention coordinator with Washington State’s Alcohol and Drug Counseling, Assessment and Prevention Service, said her institution is focusing on a range of concerns for students before they leave the country. 

“We have to differentiate between students who are coming in with very serious mental health concerns versus those students who are dealing with anxiety or maybe a little bit of an eating disorder,’’ she said. “And then there are a lot of students who have conduct issues around substance use. 

“Those are three very different groups who are going to disclose and seek out services on a different level.”

Maarhuis’ office conducts predeparture programming for Washington State students who are planning abroad experiences. The programs include risk assessment and motivational interviewing to help shape student expectations of what they'll encounter when outside the country.

Many students, for example, believe that alcohol consumption is rife among American students who are studying abroad and that semesters are little more than “booze cruises.” Maarhuis said her office presents evidence that students’ peers are drinking much less than they may think.

The programs, Maarhuis said, help the students who take part.

“The first 10 minutes we really work hard at building rapport,” she said. “We’re not trying to take their fun away. This isn’t about eliminating all of the risks. We try to identify some really exciting things that they can do while keeping their harm down. 

“By the end, they’re quite pleased and glad they went through it.”

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