Mental Health in International Schools


In the age of globalisation, more and more children are attending international schools. As families leave their home countries for work opportunities abroad, young people continue their education in schools that meet their needs through educational programs with international qualifications and languages.

International schools can bring many opportunities. Children and teenagers at international schools often gain a unique ability to understand different perspectives, empathise with the experiences of others, and build an open-minded and holistic worldview. 

But they can also bring certain difficulties. Young people may struggle to obtain a sense of belonging, form a secure identity, and feel secure and confident in themselves.

In recent years, many international schools have developed exceptional pastoral and counselling schemes to support young people struggling with their mental health. However, in many cases, these systems still can’t offer the level of care some young people need. 

This blog offers information on the mental health of young people in international schools and the support schools can offer. It also explores how The Wave can support adolescents and young adults who require additional support.

The Rise of International Schools

In recent years, the number of international schools across the globe has increased significantly. From around 3-4 million in 1989, about 6 million students now attend international schools worldwide.

The rise of international schools has taken place within a climate of globalisation and technological advances. These have given way to increased ease of travel, multiplying work opportunities abroad, and international communication. As a result, many more families now work in a country other than their home country, sometimes moving frequently from one location to another.

Many young people at international schools study with the International Baccalaureate Organisation, following a recognised curriculum that is consistent across many international schools. This allows them to continue their studies as they move from one place to another – or at some point return to their home country.

How Do International Schools and Living Abroad Affect Young People’s Development and Mental Health?

Young people growing up in cultures other than their own often develop many positive qualities. These include strong language skills, the ability to understand different cultures, an expanded worldwide view, fewer prejudices, and impressive adaptability. However, these strengths can also cause difficulties and challenges.

One challenging aspect of growing up abroad is finding a ‘cultural balance’. This means understanding and internalising the customs and culture of a place to have an unconscious knowledge of the way things work in a certain society. This balance can be difficult to find, especially when a young person is surrounded by other internationals who may all bring different worldviews and customs.

Sometimes these challenges can affect a young person’s self-esteem, causing insecurity and low self-confidence. Young people may struggle to know how to act and behave across various aspects of daily life in a way that leads to positive interactions with others. These problems may also affect academic performance, in places where learning practices and expectations are different from previous experiences.

Mental health challenges can be especially significant when a young person frequently moves from one society to another. They may find it hard to develop a secure and stable sense of self and identity in an ever-changing environment. They may also experience a wide range of other problems, including discrimination and racism, a lack of friendships with local people, unfamiliar models of teaching, and unrealistic expectations from themselves or their families.

For some young people, these challenges can lead to feelings of depression and a lack of belonging. They may also experience different forms of grief after leaving a place and losing friendships, lifestyles, and other parts of their identity. Sometimes children try to cope with these feelings in unhelpful ways, such as an over-emphasis on academic work or withdrawal from social situations.

What Mental Health Concerns Affect Adolescents Worldwide?

Aside from mental health problems that are specific to international schools, young people may also have other mental health concerns. Worldwide, around 1 in 5 young people may have a mental health disorder, across different cultures and societies.

Some of the most common mental health problems among young people are:

What Mental Health Support Can International Schools Offer?

Across the world, mental health services for young people fall far short of children and adolescents’ needs. The majority of countries have no mental health policy for children and adolescents: in 2008, only 7% of countries had a clear policy for the mental health of young people.

With a lack of mental health support from public services, international schools can play a key role in providing the care that young people living abroad need to cope with the challenges they face. 

Research from the 2000s shows that mental health promotion in international schools was often very low. Where effective support existed, it was underpinned by supportive policies, the development of a health committee, and dedicated time and resources. Larger schools were also more likely to have effective policies.

In recent years, international schools have started to develop more effective mental health support. Some schools now offer exceptional levels of care, including strong pastoral and counselling teams. However, there is still a limit to the severity and complexity of the cases they can support.

How Can Parents Support Young People in International Schools?

Parent support and involvement in their child’s education is always important for their achievement and development. But with the challenges of international schools, parental support can play an even more important role.

Mental health disorders always require professional support. But there are some things that parents can do to help young people maintain a sense of identity and self-worth as they experience changing cultures and a diversity of perspectives.

Emotional Support

Young people in international schools may experience difficult or distressing feelings, from a lack of self-identity to loss and grief. 

Parents can help young people manage their emotions through open conversations about their experiences. It’s important to listen carefully, validate a young person’s feelings, and avoid giving unsolicited advice. Parents should remain unjudgmental and open-minded, reassuring a young person and showing love and care.

Communication with School Staff

Establishing effective communication with teachers, pastoral, and other school staff can help parents understand when a child may be struggling and what challenges they are facing. Regular meetings can support staff and parents to address problems collaboratively and provide coordinated and holistic support.

Belonging and Diversity

Young people at international schools often experience feelings of rootlessness and lack a sense of belonging. Celebrating aspects of their home culture and maintaining collective memory may help some young people build their identity and sense of self.

At the same time, young people will experience a diversity of cultures, opinions, and world views in their everyday lives. It’s important to encourage open-mindedness and acceptance whilst discouraging prejudice. 

Looking for Support Outside of School

While international schools can offer support for many young people, they are not best equipped to look after young people with mental health disorders that have reached a certain severity or duration. Sometimes, the care schools can offer for conditions like eating disorders or behavioural disorders is not enough, especially when young people require specialist residential care.

Equally, school environments can become a barrier to recovery and healing. School often brings pressure and expectations that limit opportunities for reflection and change. Academic practices can also encourage a model of a ‘perfect student’ that reinforces perfectionist traits that may underpin anxiety, eating disorders, and other conditions.

In these circumstances, the best option can be for young people to take time out of school to attend a residential or other treatment program. Taking time out can allow young people to address and work through traumas, memories, and feelings safely, beginning a process of healing. It’s not always an easy decision, but it can be the best way forward.

What Can The Wave Offer?

The Wave Clinic is a specialist residential treatment space for young people. It combines education with clinical care, supporting young people to continue learning as they recover from mental illness and look towards the future.

We support young people to stay in their year group through personal learning programs for International Baccalaureates (IBs) and other recognised qualifications. This happens through online platforms, collaborations with leading schools in the UK, and partnerships with US and UK universities based in Kuala Lumpur that facilitate one-to-one in-person tuition. When necessary, we offer young people the chance to explore different or additional paths.

Alongside academic qualifications, we offer vocational education and qualifications, internships, volunteering, and learning through enriching experiences. We work with a young person’s school throughout their time with us to coordinate their learning and support their transition back into education.

As a dedicated treatment space, young people have access to 24-hour specialist support and care. For those at the highest risk, we provide round-the-clock medical supervision with ICU beds and other equipment. We build an environment where young people learn to love themselves, develop skills, and find their place in life.

Contact Us

If you’re interested in our programs, contact us today. We’re here to make a difference.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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