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Exploring the Psychological Impacts of COVID-19 Social Restrictions on International University Students: A Qualitative Study

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  • A. Al-Oraibi
  • L. Fothergill
  • M. Yildirim
  • H. Knight
  • S. Carlisle
  • M. O’connor
  • L. Briggs
  • J.R. Morling
  • J. Corner
  • J.K. Ball
  • C. Denning
  • K. Vedhara
  • H. Blake
Article number7631
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>22/06/2022
<mark>Journal</mark>International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number13
Number of pages19
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The global COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on the mental well-being of university students, but little attention has been given to international students, who may have a unique experience and perspective. The aim of this study was to explore the views of international students and university staff towards COVID-19 restrictions, self-isolation, their well-being, and support needs, through eight online focus groups with international students ( = 29) and semi-structured interviews with university staff ( = 17) at a higher education institution in England. Data were analysed using an inductive thematic approach, revealing three key themes and six subthemes: (1) practical, academic, and psychological challenges faced during self-isolation and the COVID-19 pandemic; (2) coping strategies to self-isolation and life during the pandemic; and (3) views on further support needed for international students. International students faced practical, academic, and psychological challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly relating to the rapid transition to online learning and the impact of social restrictions on integration with peers and well-being. Online social connections with peers, family, or new acquaintances reduced feelings of isolation and encouraged involvement in university life. Despite raising mental health concerns, most international students did not access mental health support services. Staff related this to perceived stigma around mental health in certain cultural groups. In conclusion, international students experienced specific practical and emotional challenges during the pandemic, and are at risk of mental ill-health, but may not actively seek out support from university services. Proactive and personalised approaches to student support will be important for positive student experiences and the retention of students who are studying abroad in the UK higher education system.