International students have feelings too

Just like any other student, international students struggle with mental health challenges. However, internationals experience them in another way and deal with them differently.

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20% of students who are studying at KU Leuven are international students. That is a total amount of 12.571 students who are coming from abroad to study at KU Leuven. Studying abroad can be an unforgettable experience, but it can also be mentally exhausting. A lot of international students struggle with their mental health and are often homesick or lonely, some experience culture shock.


To help students, Stuvo — student resources — commits to a preventative approach. It wants to reduce waiting times for psychologists and psychotherapists by ensuring that students can go somewhere else beforehand.

'Students should have the opportunity to find someone who is willing to listen in their (direct) proximity'

Kirsten Plessers, responsible for welfare and health Stuvo

That is why Stuvo organises group sessions. However, it also wants to look further into the issue and figure out what can be done at a base level. 'We are really trying to ensure that students can talk about their worries with each other', says Stuvo welfare and health responsible Kirsten Plessers. 'Students should have the opportunity to find someone, in their (direct) proximity, who listens to them.'

It is harder to find such a person for international students. 'Flemish students mostly seek help from parents or friends', says Luca Turcksin, students facilities representative   for LOKO — the umbrella-organisation for student representatives. 'But it is harder for international students because their families are living in another country.'

'Internationals often come from a different culture, a culture that is not familiar with the concept of family doctors', Turcksin explains. As a positive consequence, international students more readily look for help from Stuvo than Flemish students, Kathleen Veugels, team coach of psychologists and psychiatrists at Stuvo, confirms.

It is unclear to what extent international students experience distress

Help for international students at Stuvo is accommodated to their specific needs. The sessions that Stuvo offers to non-basis students – the category that most international students are part of – are divided evenly between English sessions and Dutch sessions.

Furthermore, Stuvo has established the MindMates initiative, an organisation consisting of two parts: a buddy system with which an international student connects with a local student who helps them discover Leuven and a second part that organises events. 'We often offer activities in both English and Dutch, sometimes only in English,' MindMates volunteers Sofie Vranken and Arthur Vansteenkiste state.

Honeymoon phase or culture shock

In 2017, Veto wrote about the infamous honeymoon phase, a phase where a lot of international students stumble on when they are having, supposedly, the time of their lives. All the hopes and expectations of studying abroad are being fulfilled in those first few months. It is comparable to the happiness of a newlywed couple. 

International students are often posed of very vulnerable

Luca Turcksin, representative of student facilities LOKO

But now, it seems that international students not only experience this euphoric feeling, but also experience culture shock. This shock often comes as a slap in the face for international students because they arrive in this completely different world.

It is normal for students to become aware the cultural differences between their land of origin and the land in which they are currently studying. 'International students are often perceived as very vulnerable', Turcksin explains.


It is unclear to what extent international students experience distress as compared to 'regular' students. 40% of all students need intensive support obtaining their degree. It is still unclear how many international students are part of this group.

Jef Vandorpe, director of inclusion at the Flemish Union of Students (VVS), states that the Wellbeing monitor has also questioned international students on mental health. However, when it comes to international students, no big differences were established. 'I suspect that international students' mental health issues are similar to those of Flemish students.'

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