“The most common mental health problem among Vietnamese students is how we suppress negative feelings. I found many of us are not willing to seek out help when we need it, and it can severely disrupt our academic performance. We tend to disregard our negative thoughts until they pile up and get out of hand,” says Mai Anh, a student at Fulbright University Vietnam.

In Vietnam, awareness and interest regarding mental health is steadily increasing from the perspective of both policymakers and the general public, with a recent government initiative requiring primary schools to be equipped with a counseling center. Yet lingering stigma and taboos associated with the word mental health continue to make discussing issues and seeking out help a challenge.

For liberal arts institutions abroad, having some form of mental health support on campus is often the norm.  Research has shown that for students to succeed academically, caring for how they feel and how they are functioning in college is very important. Indeed, university life introduces significant changes and pressure for students this age. It also doubles as a delicate period of transition from adolescence to young adulthood.

A pillar of academic life

For Skultip “Jill” Sirikantraporn, a clinical psychologist trained in the U.S., “this is a crucial time for our students, and they also have to focus on their classes and assignments. Especially at Fulbright, where the materials and learning methodology are new.  All these uncertainties could make them confused and distressed, putting them at risk for depression or anxiety, which in turn interferes with their academic performance. Those are tightly interrelated. If we ignore their mental health, then we actually fail to support them academically. In contrast, given enough guidance and support, this is an opportunity for us to help them form long-lasting health habits.”

Fulbright University Vietnam was the perfect opportunity to build a culture of psychological wellbeing conducive to academic success, an effort spearheaded by Jill from the very beginning.

“Mental health was a strong pillar when building Fulbright, welcomed with strong enthusiasm from the academic team. From the moment I joined, all departments at Fulbright were discussing and planning for short-term and long-term mental health support for students. It is part of the DNA of this institution.”

Fulbright now has a resident counselor for our students, as well as a newly minted wellness center that is private, soundproof and confidential. This center offers interventions through individual counseling for students who are experiencing distress and need professional and private help.  “It is our hope that having mental health support immediately accessible on campus encourages students to reach out for earlier intervention, before problems become too serious, or guide them further if it has.” explains Tram Le, Fulbright’s resident counselor. “But counselling is only one aspect of the wellness center. For example, we also offer yoga and meditation workshops, reconnecting the mind and the body.”

Tram Le, Fulbright’s Wellness Counselor

From Wellness counseling to Wellness culture

Activities indeed go beyond, into the culture on campus.  For Jill, “peer support is very powerful. This is why we are creating a culture where each can lend help in this way. Our ambition is also to include staff and faculty wellness. Mental health is a culture we need to foster and a language we aim to normalize.”

This includes raising awareness with students, providing them a space to  talk, but also increasing their mental health literacy, the vocabulary they can use to discuss their emotions, but also active listening skills and how to ask someone how they are. Jill also developed the Mental Health First-Aid curriculum for students and staff to address everyday issues, for themselves and others.

“This is how the wellness center’s activities include prevention and early intervention. We want to detect problems or distress early enough so we can provide early intervention. In case students have slipped through the early intervention and now face a full-blown crisis, we are prepared to respond to crisis as well. Our mental health services therefore include the three key levels of care: prevention, early intervention and crisis management,” Jill continues.

Other community initiatives have also sprouted, including a psychology club. Jill explains: “We want to make sure that all voices are heard, especially with the diversity of students. It brings a richness of experience, different perspectives and knowledge around what it means to be healthy, and what it means to ask for help. This is a good kind of challenge, and it seems like students already come in with a hunger for this type of support, as well as curiosity.”

Mai Anh is part of this club and is very aware of the positive role mental health can play at Fulbright. “With all the big and small projects our club is involved in, I really think about how we can improve mental health on campus, one activity at a time. Whether that’s leaving a lovely note or potentially setting up a crying corner on campus, it makes me realize how it can be both easy and difficult when it comes to designing activities that are beneficial to the wellness of our community. But I think my biggest contribution go the student’s mental health is setting an example through how I maintain my own.”

Antoine Touch – Anh Thư