Psychosocial Adaptation of International Students:Advanced Screening
Ph.D., senior lecturer in psychology, philosophy department
Kharkiv National University of Radio Electronics, Ukraine
Melnichuk M. (2018) Psychosocial Adaptation of International Students:
Considering the significance of academic adaptation of international students, it is important to examine problems of psychosocial adjustment taking into account presence/absence of psychotraumatic experience. This empirical study investigated how general mental health state, satisfaction with life, perceived social support, self-esteem and traumatic experience influenced academic adaptation in university. The present research used author’s Migrants Psychosocial Maladjustment Scale (MPMS) created as a psychological diagnostic tool that helps estimating the degree of psychosocial maladjustment of temporary migrants. The MPMS results allowed analyzing the sample of international students from the point of view of psychosocial maladjustment. The obtained data proves significant influence of acquired traumatic experience and its consequences in form of different severity of mental disorder on adaptation process. In particular, 83% of the total number of respondents turned out to have different traumatic experience, 13.2% of which were diagnosed with PTSD symptoms of high and average severity. The most common respondents’ reactions to traumatic events were sleeping problems, depressive and social stress disorders. Results of the study allow recommending used set of psychodiagnostic tools for psychosocial maladjustment screening of international students.
Keywords: psychosocial adjustment, temporary migrants, mental health, psychotrauma, PTSD.
PTSD diagnosis and its impact on psychosocial adaptation of foreign students
Nowadays, Universities of Ukraine welcome students from all over the world. Sometimes these are countries with unfavorable political situation, natural disasters and military conflicts (or high risk of their occurrence). The traumatic experience gained by foreign students back home accompanies and complicates immigration and process of adaptation to new life conditions.
Sampling and analysis
The research base of the study was represented by the first-year foreign students of the University, who study in Ukraine for seven years (279 males, 63 females; average age M = 20.8; SD = 1.83). The study involved temporary migrants from Afghanistan – 3.6%, Egypt – 2.5%, Iraq – 19.4%, Iran – 12.1%, Cameroon – 17.3%, Libya – 5.1%, Nigeria – 28.1%, Sudan – 9.7%, Tunisia – 2.2%.
The results of foreign students’ survey regarding the presence of traumatic experience showed by the LEC questionnaire (see Fig. 1) indicated that the most widespread emergency event present in their lives was a transportation accident (TA). It showed 3.5% of respondents directly affected by TA, 5.7% – witnessed TA and 9.9% of respondents learned about TA (someone from relatives or from the close environment of the respondent suffered from TA). Less common traumatic event was fire or explosion and natural disaster (ND), which showed 3.2% directly affected, 5.3% witnessed and 8.5% respondents learned about it. The following traumatic event was a physical assault (PhA), combat or exposure to a war-zone (CEW), any other very stressful event or experience (OSE), assault with a weapon (AW), and life-threatening illness or injury (LTI), with the following rates: 2.8%, 2.1%, 1.8 %, 0.7%, 0.3% directly affected; 3.2%, 3.9%, 4.2%, 2.5%, 0.7% witnessed; and 6.7%, 6.4%, 5.7%, 4.2%, 1.4% of the respondents learned about it.
Present traumatic experience relative to traumatic event participation
The survey done by the PCL questionnaire revealed various signs of psychotrauma within foreign students from Africa and the Middle East. The most common respondents reactions to traumatic events were sleeping problems (psychosomatic insomnia, disturbances of sleep rhythm, etc.), depressive and social stress disorders. In particular, 83% of the total number of respondents turned out to be traumatized, 13.2% of which were diagnosed with PTSD symptoms of high and average severity (see Fig. 2).
The largest number of respondents with PTSD diagnosis was found among students who were involved in military conflicts (4.3%) and suffered from physical assaults (2.1%). The maximum group injured in TA (19.1%) demonstrated a small number of patients with PTSD diagnosis (1.4%). Other traumatic events also led to PTSD in a small number of respondents: 1.4% (AW), 0.7% (ND, OSE) and 0.4% (LTI).
According to the survey results there were two groups of respondents formed. The first one (PTSD presence) included foreign students who had been diagnosed with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder of high and average severity; the second one was formed out of students with no PTSD symptoms found (PTSD absence). The samples differed in the following socio-demographic characteristics:
The first group consisted of 36 respondents (32 male, 4 female), average age M = 20.7 years; SD = 1.79. Distribution of temporary migrants by countries of origin: Afghanistan – 12.9%, Egypt – 3.2%, Iraq – 19.3%, Iran – 6.4%, Cameroon – 16.1%, Libya – 13.0%, Nigeria – 12.9%, Sudan – 9.7%, Tunisia – 6.5%; by religion: Islam – 77.4%, Christianity – 12.9%, local cults – 9.7%; according to academic results (on the ECTS scale): A – 0.0%, B – 0.0%, C – 0.0%, D – 25.8%, E – 45.2%, FX – 19.3%, F – 9.7%; according to the traumatic experience: SEW – 38.7%, AW – 13.0%, OSE – 6.5%, ND – 6.4%, TA – 12.9%, PhA – 19.3%, LTI – 3.2%, non-traumatized – 0.0%; by the degree of participation in the traumatic event: affected – 61.3%, witnessed – 38.7%, learned about it – 0.0%.
Distribution of affected respondents according to acquired traumatic experience
The second group consisted of:
59 respondents (41 male, 18 female), average age M = 20.6 years; SD = 1.92; Distribution of foreign students by countries of origin: Egypt – 8.4%, Iran – 18.7%, Cameroon – 25.1%, Nigeria – 47.8%; by religion: Islam – 47.9%, Christianity – 35.4%, local cults – 16.7%; according to academic results (on the ECTS scale): A – 31.2%, B – 37.5%, C – 18.7%, D – 12.6%, E – 0.0%, FX – 0.0%, F – 0.0%; according to the traumatic experience: SEW – 12.5%, AW – 6.2%, OSE – 2.1%, ND – 22.9%, TA – 16.8%, PhA – 14.6%, LTI – 6.2%, non-traumatized – 18.7%; by the degree of participation in the traumatic event: affected – 0.0%, witnessed – 0.0%, learned about it – 81.2%, not involved – 18.8%.
Structural characteristics of foreign students’ psychosocial adaptation
Study of structural characteristics of psychosocial adaptation of foreign “visitors” was carried out on the basis of analysis of changing mean values of the corresponding indicators in two groups of first-year foreign students. Both statistically significant changes and minor changes in indicators were taken into account during data analysis. This allowed showing more coherent picture of psychosocial adaptation of temporary migrants’ structure.
The study of structural characteristics of the general state of foreign students’ mental health with present/absent symptoms of PTSD was conducted on the following basis of questionnaires: E. Diener (SWLS), M. Rosenberg (SES), G.D. Zimet (MSPSS) and D.P. Goldberg (GHQ). The analysis of the results (Fig. 3) showed that the indicators of Self-Esteem (SE), Life Satisfaction (LS) and General Mental Health (GMH) in the first group (PTSD present) had a high degree of severity, and indicators of social support perception from Family, Friends and Significant Others (Fam, Fri, SO) in groups were almost the same.
The second group (PTSD absent) showed statistically significant higher values of LS, SE and GMH indicators (t = -29.44; t = -16.25; t = -27.92; respectively, with p < 0.001) relative to the value in the first group (PTSD present). There were similar variables for social support perception: Fam (t = -1.16; p < 0.2); Fri (t = -0.9; p < 0.3) and SO (t = -1.88; p < 0.06), but no statistical difference of the indicators in the groups.
Structural characteristics of general mental health
The MPMS questionnaire results allowed us to analyze the sample of foreign students from the point of view of psychosocial maladjustment (see Fig. 4, 5). Fisher's angular transformation was used to identify differences in socio-demographic characteristics of adapted/unadapted temporary migrants, make some new, useful conclusions and confirm the well-known statements.
It turned out that the adaptability degree did not depend on the age of the respondents (the average age of respondents in both groups was the same). Gender differences in the groups of adapted and unadapted foreign students could not be considered significant, given that the value of Fisher's angular transformation coefficient fell to the limit of the uncertainty zone (φ* = 1.66; р = 0.048). In other words, gender of respondents had no effect on their adaptability.
There was no difference in places of origin (the Middle East or the State of the African continent) of adapted respondents either (φ* = 0.01; р = 0.022). Thus, the natives of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan might have almost the same level of maladjustment as their peers from Egypt, Cameroon, Libya, Nigeria, Sudan and Tunisia.
Socio-demographic characteristics of adapted/unadapted foreign students
The analysis of adaptation abilities among temporary migrants according to religion differences showed a low tendency to maladjustment among Christians (φ* = 1.6; р = 0.055) and supporters of local cults (φ* = 2.25; р = 0.012). Muslims, on the contrary, showed the greatest tendency to maladjustment (φ* = 3.0; р < 0.001). The distribution of respondents according to academic progress confirmed (φ* = 5.37; р < 0.001) the obvious fact that adapted foreign students should have higher scores on the ECTS scale (A, B, C), and those who were not adapted – lower (D, E, FX, F).
Socio-demographic characteristics of adapted/unadapted foreign students
Analysis of foreign students' distribution according to traumatic experiences acquired at home revealed that traumatized respondents were more likely to be maladjusted than those who were not traumatized (φ* = 1.72; р = 0.043).
At the same time, the division of respondents by the degree of participation in traumatic events gave the following results: directly affected respondents had a very little chance of adaptation (φ* = 5.36; р < 0.001), witnesses of traumatic events (φ* = 1.72; р = 0.043) and those who had learned about it (φ* = 0.49; р < 0.1) had even little chances but respondents not involved in traumatic event - quite a large chance of adaptation (φ* = 2.63; р < 0.001). Respondents with PTSD symptoms showed significantly higher level of maladjustment (φ* = 3.85; р < 0.001), as opposed to those who had no symptoms of PTSD.
The detailed analysis of the survey results showed that the main problem that temporary migrants were facing in Ukraine was the language barrier. A large number of respondents refer this issue to psychological and traumatic factors that limit their social activity. Another similar traumatic experience for foreign students is adaptation to new living conditions (starting to live in a student's dormitory). For many respondents, communication with roommates is a big problem too – when settling students into a dormitory, no one takes into account cultural national features of future roommates that complicates life for temporary migrants from different countries. Most have difficulties adapting to climate changes. There was also frustration behavior of foreign students due to the lack of familiar living conditions, relatives and friends who stayed back home.
Students also consider the process of studying in the University as a traumatic event. Mostly parents decide for their children which high school to enter and no one is interested in respondents desire to learn a particular profession. One of the main factors influencing the choice of country to study is a possibility to obtain a European standard diploma. It’s also important to consider plays with relative political and economic stability, as well as the geographical location (proximity to the EU).
The study showed that all foreign students involved in military conflicts or suffered from physical assaults were diagnosed with high level of PTSD. Those who had been injured in transportation accident also demonstrated PTSD symptoms. Other traumatic events led to PTSD in a small number of students. These results are well-coordinated (Kendal correlation coefficient τ = 0.905; p = 0.004) with the indices mentioned in the empirical studies of other scientists (Perkonigg et al., 2000; Heptinstall et al., 2004; Smith et al., 2007; Darves‐Bornoz et al., 2008; Roberts et al., 2011; Kilpatrick et al., 2013), which confirms the reliability of the data obtained.
The analysis of structural characteristics of the general state of foreign students’ mental health with present/absent symptoms of PTSD showed that the indicators of Self-Esteem, Life Satisfaction and General Mental Health had a high degree of severity, and indicators of social support perception in groups were almost the same. The obtained results conform to conclusions given in numerous scientific papers (Aspinwall and Taylor, 1992; Clara et al., 2003; Edwards, 2004; Ratelle et al., 2004; Suldo et al., 2008; Church et al., 2013; Chemtob et al., 2016; etc.).
The MPMS results allowed analyzing the sample of foreign students from the point of view of psychosocial maladjustment. It showed that the adaptability degree did not depend on the age, gender or origin of respondents. The analysis of adaptation abilities among temporary migrants according to religion differences showed tendency to maladjustment among Muslims. As for academic progress, adapted students obviously had higher scores on the ECTS scale, than those who were not adapted.
First-year foreign students with traumatic experiences and PTSD diagnosis have a lack of: adequate perception of social reality, interest to the social surroundings, adaptation (balance) to environment, focus on socially useful activities, culture of consumption, altruism, empathy, responsibility, selflessness and democracy in behavior. Within the framework of psychological distress concept, it must be recognized that foreign students of this group are unable to function properly in society and are prone to new manifestations of mental disorders.
Analysis of mean values of characteristics of psychosocial adaptation of foreign students in education process let us draw the following conclusions.
Severity degree of the indicators of temporary migrants' adaptability showed rather high level of psychosocial adaptation in the group of respondents with absent PTSD symptoms and low level of adaptation in the group with present PTSD symptoms. That indicates significant impact of acquired traumatic experiences and its consequences on adaptation process in form of mental disorders of different severity degrees.
The most common models of adaptive behavior of foreign students (with present/absent PTSD symptoms) were identified according to study results: unsociability, concentration on oneself (no matter where they are, students do not remove headphones, constantly listening to the music and thus creating a comfort zone); involvement in religious practices; hyperactive socialization (attempt to maintain active relationships with as many friends as possible, spend the majority of time outdoors, etc.).
The group of foreign students with symptoms of PTSD was diagnosed increased level of mental discomfort, emotional instability, predominance of negative emotions, psychological instability and dissatisfaction with their mental health. That indicates lack of proper conditions for successful psychosocial adaptation and mental comfort in real natural and social reality, and confirms the presence of mental illness or mental instability.
Analysis of differences in socio-demographic characteristics of adapted/unadapted temporary migrants suggested that the degree of adaptability did not depend on gender, age, place of origin or religion of respondents.
The present structure of advanced screening including MPMS scale showed effective way to study psychosocial maladjustment of foreign students taking into consideration PTSD symptoms and previous acquired traumatic experience that aggravate adaptation process. This method should be useful to different social services working with temporary migrants.
This study should also stimulate further research of psychosocial maladjustment of foreign students, transferring existing knowledge in order to find out actual problems that may face temporary migrants and provide proper assistance.
All procedures performed in this study were done in accordance with the ethical standards of the author’s institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The Human Subjects Committee of Kharkiv National University of Radio Electronics approved the study.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
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