Political instability and student and staff mental health

Political instability and student and staff mental health

Urgent action is needed to improve the mental health of international students and staff whose countries are hit by a large-scale crisis.

At Leiden University, we are home to students from over 115 countries. We pride ourselves that students can get to know the world when they come to us - “bij ons leer je de wereld kennen”. However, being home to so many international students also comes with a great responsibility. We try to make students feel welcome and at home in Leiden. We introduce them to the local culture and provide events and opportunities to socialise. All of this greatly benefits students’ well-being, and their mental health in particular. But what do we do if there is a large-scale crisis in their home country?

Last year, on 16 September 2022, Jina Mahsa Amini’s killing sparked nationwide civil unrest in Iran. The events in Iran gained widespread international attention - but only after nearly a month of ongoing protests inside and outside the country. Until then, our staff and students of Iranian heritage were alone with their worries for the safety of their loved ones. This timeframe was one of the hardest moments of my life. Continuing with your professional life while you worry whether your family is alive or dead... This feeling is something many students can relate to. When the war in Ukraine broke out in February 2022, our students with ties to Ukraine were worried sick - understandably so. I saw the same levels of extreme distress and devastation in our Turkish students when an earthquake hit Turkey in February 2023.

The consequences of this psychological distress are, for example, being less able to focus on the responsibilities of daily life, such as studying for exams or meeting deadlines, and thus falling behind with your studies or work. If there’s no support system in place in these moments of crisis, the students and staff affected risk emotional and physical burnout. What can we do to mitigate these consequences?

As a university, we need to have a system in place to support our international staff and students at such moments of crisis. We need an emergency support system that we can activate quickly when there is a large-scale crisis in a given country or region; we need to be able to quickly gather information, such as whether we have students and colleagues with ties to the country or countries affected. This way we can reach out to them and ask about their well-being and their needs, to ensure that they feel supported during the crisis. The examples of what we could do are manifold. For example, if requested, we could perhaps offer psychological assistance during moments of crisis. We could create support circles and safe spaces for the students and staff affected to communicate their current worries and fears. We could facilitate self-organised events or initiatives in response to the crisis (e.g. as seen with bake sales to raise donations for earthquake relief efforts in Turkey).

All of the above-mentioned examples have one thing in common: they show support and make the people affected by a severe crisis in their home country feel acknowledged and less alone. Less alone in a home away from home. If we can accommodate our international student and staff community in this way, then we truly deepen our bond with the world, far beyond our university’s words. In Leiden, it is not just that you get to know the world with us: we will also become part of your world.