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Brexit and EU students: What about mental health?

Updated: May 19, 2021

This weeks blog is written by our International Student Engagement Officer and explores the impact that Brexit has had on EU students mental health in the UK.

When discussing immigration in the UK, higher education sits quite high on the list of opportunities that determine immigration to Britain. Britain has long been the second most popular destination for international students, who made up 19.6% of the total UK student population in 2017-18. According to HESA, 139,145 students taking courses in UK higher education institutions were European Union nationals during the same year. Of the EU students, 67.6% took undergraduate courses (UG), 21.9% took taught postgraduate courses, and 10.5% were research postgraduates (PG).

Here comes the question that pops up into everyone’s head; But what now? After Brexit, what will the multicultural UK higher education and student life look like after all the new immigration restrictions? Is Britain slowly turning into a more hostile environment for EU students? Most importantly, how is Brexit predicted to affect, if not already affected, EU students and their mental health? And this is exactly what this blog will explore.

Mental health and common stressors across the student community

Mental health has always been an issue one could call ‘taboo’. In recent years there have been significant efforts to raise awareness and minimise shame around it. Despite the efforts, mental illness is still not perceived ‘normal’ enough for people to be open about, more importantly, to deal with relevant issues, even if seeking help practically. It is easier to feel overwhelmed during big life changes, and emigrating to a whole new country to study and pursue a career is definitely a challenge.

International students often experience similar stressors as home students who enter university concerning anxiety to the unknown (Prieto-Welch, 2006). University settling, academic progress and financial management are hard tasks for every student that may trigger anxiety, stress and other mental illnesses. It is proved that the most common mental illnesses- anxiety, depression, substance misuse and panic disorder- occur most in 16-24 years older adults (26%) (Forbes-Mewett and Sawyer, 2019). International students face additional difficulties as immigrants, such as language barriers, social isolation, nostalgia, different regulations and country system settling.

And now, an extra hurdle for EU students.

Brexit is an additional determining factor influencing international student mental health by creating an insecure and blurry future. For those who have not read the new restrictions or have not been informed, here is a summary of what an EU national should take into consideration if he/she wants to study in the UK:

Finance-the most concerning factor

The procedure one must go through and the constant thinking if he/she ticks all the boxes is quite harrowing. The financial factor itself poses a heavy burden to studying in the UK. Financial support is non-existent since EU students are no longer eligible for a tuition fee student loan, although they will be paying full international student fees. Also, students are required to go through thorough checking procedures of their money acquisition. It seems extremely stressful having to prove you are a ‘millionaire’ (tongue-in-cheek) for at least 28 consecutive days, let alone if you have children or you are married.

And the costs add up if one considers what someone may need to pay as part of the procedure or increase the likelihood of a positive application outcome. Depending on the country they come from, students may have additional costs relating to translation and documentation management, advisor and counselling services, solicitors or private teachers expert on the specific English language tests. Overall, it seems like a huge investment that does not give you the expected rewards and weighing these two is a distressing process itself. EU students will only be able to work and stay in the country for 2 more years after they have graduated, which is enough to ruin someone’s vision of pursuing a career in a country that can offer these opportunities. But now, these opportunities are neither cheap nor long-lasting anymore.

Beyond the financial factor

Many Brexit critics focus on the UK becoming a hostile environment to immigrants. International students, including EU ones, have already been facing discrimination and isolation, which according to the literature, has been the number one stressor for them. Stigma and prejudice are common for people in ethnic or religious minority groups like international students are. Bhui (2016) maintains that since the Brexit vote, discrimination rates have risen against immigrants, non-UK citizens and ethnic or religious minorities within Britain. Traumatic experiences related to racism can have an even more deep impact on international student mental health.

This project conducted a mini-survey on Brexit and mental health perceptions and collected results from 21 EU students already studying in the UK. It is important to observe how negatively European students settled in the UK have been already impacted, let alone those who have to ‘fight’ before they even move to the UK.

How strongly do you agree with the following statements?

Mean score (0-10) 0=strongly disagree 10=strongly agree

The new Brexit restrictions have affected my mental health significantly - 4.4

The new Brexit restrictions have affected my mental health negatively. 5

The new Brexit restrictions have made my future seem unpredictable. 7

The new Brexit restrictions are very likely to affect/change my life plans. 6.7

Brexit has made me feel unwelcome in the UK. 5.5

I am stressed about qualifying for ‘settled’ status to stay in the UK for more years. 5.3

In a nutshell, most respondents have negative feelings about Brexit’s impact on higher education, impacting their mental health but not significantly. The majority reported concern about processes in the UK, such as student recruitment and funding from institutions, which were not complicated pre-Brexit. The prevailing feeling in the responses seems to be stress, and this is probably associated with the new complex procedure that considers EU students as ‘foreign students’. And all these theoretical assumptions seem to make sense when most current students are less likely to continue their career and studies in the UK.

For more information on UK Student visa, visit the UK government website here.


Thanks to Tatiana Papadopoulou, who was our International Student Engagement Officer who wrote this post. Tatiana is currently studying mathematics and economics at the University of Nottingham.


Working in Partnership

The project is nationwide. We're making a real effort to engage with everyone interested in international student mental health, including universities, mental health services, students unions, sector bodies, charities and organisations such a private student accommodation.

The project is led by the University of Nottingham, in partnership with the University of Nottingham Students' Union, University of Leeds, Leeds University Union, SOAS, SOAS Students' Union, Student Minds and Campuslife Ltd.

Project funded as part of the Office for Students Mental Health Challenge Competition.

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