Supporting student wellbeing: the psychological impact of coronavirus
5 March 2020

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Supporting student wellbeing: the psychological impact of the coronavirus outbreak

Advice from positive psychologist and coach Ruth Hughes

The global and rapidly evolving response to the coronavirus situation has, so far, been focused primarily on the need to restrict transmission of the disease. Within the UK, where the Chief Medical Advisor currently states the risk is "moderate", schools have moved quickly to offer practical support, advice and information to students, agents and families.

Procedures have been established regarding travel restrictions, accommodation arrangements, what to do in the event that a student presents with symptoms, and the importance of following hygiene measures such as regular hand-washing, use of tissues, and not touching faces whenever possible.

In addition to these measures, however, it is vitally important to also consider the psychological impact and potential mental health risk the current situation could cause international students, mitigating this wherever possible.

Some individuals may be more psychologically vulnerable

While many are taking a pragmatic approach, some individuals may be more vulnerable, or more directly impacted by negative experiences. Reports of attacks on students, such as the postgraduate Chinese student attacked by a member of the public in Sheffield at the end of January are, thankfully, rare. Perception of minor aggressions, such as being avoided, or hearing insensitive comments about nationality are, sadly being reported as more common experiences.

"One of my Chinese friends was sitting on the tube when she started coughing. Everyone near her moved away and she looked up to see her section of the carriage was empty, with everyone crowded around the doors. When they arrived at the next station, they all got out, and she heard a man say to someone waiting to enter, "I wouldn't go in there if I were you – I think she's sick. She was very upset." - Jian (student)

Increased mental health risks may be experienced by students who:

  • Are already homesick
  • Are new to the country and experiencing culture shock
  • Have existing and underlying difficulties, such as anxiety or depression
  • Are experiencing stress about forthcoming examinations or other academic pressures
  • Are worried about friends and family who are in areas at risk from the coronavirus
  • Have been reading or watching sensationalist social media posts exaggerating the risks of the disease
  • Have directly experienced hostility or avoidance

ELT schools and centres can assist staff and host families in recognising that pressure on individual mental health is often cumulative, increasing awareness and knowing what to do to support wellbeing. Emotional as well as physical support is key.


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Boosting student wellbeing

Positive psychology techniques provide scientifically-evidenced ways of promoting good mental health, shifting people towards better wellbeing and helping to protect them from mental health issues.

Advising the use of wellbeing models such as Martin Seligman's evidence-based Positive Psychology PERMAH framework could offer staff and host families a practical approach to supporting positive student mental health.

Positive emotions

Anything that might enhance students' enjoyment of life should be included in their day to day routines. Planning favourite meals or treats (especially those from home), trips out and fun activities can all help.

Talking about things they have enjoyed previously and looking forward to events in the future are also great for creating feelings of wellbeing.

If a student is actively homesick, though, it is advisable to focus on things they enjoy in their host country and can participate in, rather than those at home they are missing and unable to access. Using techniques such as "three good things" where students are encouraged to think of three things they have enjoyed during the day (even something they might perceive as mundane like the taste of coffee at breakfast, or seeing sunlight falling across the garden) can encourage them to scan their world for what is good, rather than what is not.


Participating in absorbing and challenging activities such as music, dance, art and sport are beneficial to wellbeing as they allow students to be "in the moment" losing track of time and feeling "flow."


Ensuring there is time and opportunity to speak to loved ones on Skype or through other forms of online communication is vital. In school and with their host families, face to face quality time with people they trust and can turn to, who care about them and are willing to listen to how they feel is hugely beneficial, as is time spent with friends.

Staff and host families will also be able to reassure them that their worries and concerns are normal, and sharedby others in the same position, rather than a sign that they, as individuals, are not coping.

Care needs to be taken as potentially, feeling they might be a burden or an inconvenience, and/or exposure to insensitive remarks from others, increases students' feelings of fear and vulnerability. Positive relationships will help them to express their feelings and get support when they need it.


Students may feel that things in the world and in their lives are out of control which can exacerbate feelings of helplessness and fear. They should be given clear, non-sensational information about the coronavirus illness and what they can do to protect themselves and others from it.

They should also be given evidenced, factual information about the evolving situation both locally and globally (particularly in their home area) and discouraged from turning to sensationalist media.

Highlighting facts regarding the mild trajectory of the disease for most sufferers is helpful, for example.


Working on their studies, on language acquisition and on other activities they value, and measuring improvements and personal growth, boosts a sense of achievement, helping students feel that holiday time they are unable to spend at home is not wasted.

Health and exercise

Eating well, sleeping well and keeping physically fit will all help improve the mental wellbeing of pupils. Staff and host families can help students assess whether all the PERMAH elements are present in their lives, and build in those areas which are least supported.


If you are concerned

If, despite applying the elements of PERMAH to a student's life, staff or host family members notice that students are unhappy over prolonged periods of time, they should refer the student for further support. Things to watch out for are:

  • Low or sad mood/ persistent crying
  • Mood swings/agitation/hyperactivity
  • Difficulty in concentrating or making decisions
  • Irritability
  • Excessive tiredness/issues with poor sleep
  • Weight loss/weight gain
  • Loss of enjoyment in activities
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Concerned friends/social isolation
  • Risky behaviour

Although most of these are experienced by all of us from time to time and could be attributed to such factors including adolescence, homesickness, culture shock, minor illness or friendship issues, they could also be signs of something more worrying, including a more serious mental health issue.

Who to contact

If the concern is low-level, the students' school safeguarding lead should be informed. If there is a worry about immediate risk to life, phoning 999 and asking for the local mental health crisis team may be the most appropriate response. Other numbers it would be useful to keep handy might include:

  • Your local GP surgery
  • Samaritans: 116 123 (24 Hrs)
  • Saneline: 0300 3047 000 (out of hours mental health and emotional support and information)
  • Childline: 0800 067 4141
  • Mind: 86463
  • Calm: 0800 585 858
  • Anxiety UK: 0344 775 774
  • No Panic: 0844 967 4848
  • Papyrus: 0800 068 4141
  • Mindline: 0300 123 3393 (information)
  • Drinkline: 0300 123 1110 (helpline)
  • Talk to Frank: 0300 123 6600 (drug education service)
  • No Panic Youthline: 0175 384 0393 (anxiety)

Most students, their families and host families are coping well under the difficult circumstances and restrictions to travel caused by the coronavirus, but it is important to be aware that some may be finding it harder to deal with the situation than others. There is much that can be done to support them and to move them along the trajectory of greater wellbeing. Schools play a vital role in informing staff and host families of what can help.


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