VETERAN educator and founder of consulting firm Versan Educational Services, Sandra Bramwell, is encouraging parents, teachers and other educational professionals to focus on preparing Jamaican students for the mental health challenges of making the transition to overseas colleges and universities.
Bramwell, who over the past 25 years has helped more than 16,000 young Jamaicans gain admission to overseas boarding, college, professional and graduate programmes through Versan Educational Services, has cited a 2022 research study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders which revealed that in 2021 over 60 per cent of US college students “met criteria for one or more mental health problems, a nearly 50 per cent increase from 2013”.
“More than 350,000 students between 2013 and 2021 at 373 campuses in the United States participated in this survey which is known as the ‘Healthy Minds Study’,” Bramwell disclosed.
“The eye-opening data has now been referenced in many articles across educational, medical and news media including publications like the New York Times and USA Today over the past several months.” Bramwell insists on a positive, proactive and preparatory approach by Jamaican students who are preparing to study in the United States where just like the American students, they, too, may face mental health challenges.
“When our students go to the United States, they will not just face similar psychological stressors faced by American students,” she pointed out. “They will face unique pressures brought about by going to live in strange new places far away from home.
“The educator made specific reference to “cultural transitions”, noting that in the United States, Jamaican students find themselves in unfamiliar environments where even seemingly simple differences in attitudes, mannerisms and the way people interact with each other can come as a shock to the system.
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“Cultural clashes with other students from elsewhere in the world also happen,” Bramwell said. “These can stem from simple misunderstandings, lack of tolerance for other customs, or more serious situations such as racial prejudice.”
But the most common situations that can lead to mental health crises are shared by all students no matter where they come from and these, according to Bramwell, can include “pre-existing symptoms of mental illness that were not previously addressed as well as the inability to fend for oneself as most street-smart kids are wont to do”.
The lack of experience in taking care of oneself can increase homesickness and loneliness which may lead to anxiety and depression. The insecurity brought about by doing things that some students have never done before such as managing their own finances and getting a job while studying to help with their expenses can be overwhelming.
Those who are not able to cope with sustaining themselves and pursuing their education at the same time can suffer from physical and emotional exhaustion. “It takes two to three years for most Jamaican students to balance their budget and use their time effectively,” Bramwell said.
“Having had parents handle the finances many choose to still call home for assistance as they find it hard to adjust.” Students who have lived particularly sheltered lives with their parents and families can also be frightened by new routines. “We have seen simple scenarios such as sleeping alone without a family member nearby resulting in marked emotional distress,” the educational consultant elaborated. “And we have experienced cases where students were afraid to venture outside their dorms for weeks.”
“What one sometimes gathers from these cases is that some mental issues were at hand before they left the island,” she continued. “This is a very important point because pre-existing psychiatric disorders can lead to more pronounced mental health crises when students find themselves in these life-changing situations. The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.”
Bramwell revealed that Versan Educational Services, through more than two decades of experience, has developed various approaches to preparing their students for college as well as educating parents on how to do the same for their children.
Parents who are planning to send their children overseas are advised on how to start making them more independent long before they leave home. “We encourage them to teach their kids how to keep an account and to learn how to balance a chequebook,” the educational consultant explained. “Learn how to iron and learn how to say ‘no’ emphatically. Learn how to budget. Learn how to be discerning about the choice of friends. This is what it means to be independent, among other things.”
The organisation has also worked with parents who are concerned about issues such as loneliness to place their children in states where they have relatives, so Sunday dinners and weekends can be spent with family.
Versan also stages farewell ceremonies before students depart where they educate them about cultural differences and take them through issues of racism and other topics such as saving, investing, finding jobs, preparing for the workplace, networking in and out of college, the GPA (grade point average), add/drop for courses, and any other subjects that may be of concern.
“Those who attend live by the words we impart,” Bramwell affirmed. “But we also continue the job after the students leave by maintaining close contact over the years.”
By staying in touch with the students overseas and their parents at home Versan often becomes involved in solving traumatic problems that arise away from home. Students also report back to the office when visiting the island and some become mentors for the next cohort that will be leaving, sharing experiences that can help the less experienced students prepare for the challenges ahead.
Bramwell opined that one of the most disturbing revelations of the ‘2022 Healthy Minds Study’ stated “students of colour had the lowest rates of mental health service utilisation” and that “the highest annual rate of past-year treatment for Asian, black, and Latinx students was at or below the lowest rate for white students.
“She is therefore urging institutions, teachers and parents who are preparing young Jamaicans for education overseas to counsel those students who may see mental disorders as a stigma.”
Encourage them to talk about their mental health issues with parents and professionals,” she advised. “In some cases, too, the same may have to be done for parents who also suffer from the weight of the stigma. Everyone must understand it is important to get help, and that seeking help is normal.
“Bramwell underscored the importance of placing students in colleges and universities that have adequate and easily accessible mental health services. If a chosen university is lacking in this particular area then the surrounding areas and communities should be explored to find such facilities.”
As educators and parents we must take a holistic and comprehensive approach to preparing our young people for the transition to education overseas,” the veteran counsellor asserted. “There is no need for students and parents to be alarmed by the ‘2022 Healthy Minds Study’, but it is wise to see the increased prevalence of mental health challenges as a reminder that life can place many stressors in the path of students and we must help them find constructive ways to cope and thrive under pressure.”
Source: Veteran educator of Versan Educational Services, urges educational professionals to prepare students for the mental health challenges of studying abroad, as published in the Jamaica Observer.