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International students in the dark about mental health services

Meld Magazine

Fri Dec 16 2011


INTERNATIONAL students are covered for certain mental health services but don’t even know it. Chloe Booker investigates.

International students are confused over mental health cover. Photo:Tollie Schmidt

International students in Australia are missing out on mental health services because they’re confused over what their private health insurance covers, a recent study has found.

The Australian Sociological Association study found that the reasons for international students to leave their mental health untreated included unclear language or false information on insurers’ websites, as well as cultural and language differences.

Australian Federation of International Students’ (AFIS) acting president Arfa Noor says the study shows there are problems with the current system, with many students not accessing services until it is too late.

“Mental health has always been an issue for international students, one of the most vulnerable groups,” she said.

“There is a huge amount of confusion about what services they can access.”

The study, which also found an increase in mental health problems for international students as well as a lack of culturally aware services, stated  there was a need for more information on mental health services  to be provided.

So what mental health services does overseas student health care cover?

The Australian Government requires health care providers to cover the benefit amount listed in the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) for out-of-hospital medical services.

This means international students are fully covered for sessions with general practitioners (doctors) and psychiatrists.

But students are only partially covered for up to 10 sessions per year with psychologists, having to cover the remaining fee by themselves.

In most cases, students must pay the full amount up front and will only get the part payment back by going to the office of their insurance provider.

To see a psychiatrist or psychologist you must first be referred by a GP and there’s a two month waiting period for pre-existing conditions.

Further coverage is available at an increased cost.

Mental Health Foundation of Australia’s executive director Megan McQueenie  said the basic health cover provided by insurers is adequate, as it is the same for Australians under Medicare.

Ms McQueenie has had international students live with her since 1998, some of whom had been “extremely distressed”, and she said a more concerning problem was stigma surrounding mental health issues.

“Part of the problem is that in some of the countries where students come from mental health remains even more stigmatised than in countries like Australia, so one doesn’t want to acknowledge they have a mental health problem,” she said.

AFIS’s Arfa Noor agreed stigma was a major barrier but said, “it’s not an issue of what is covered and what is not, but rather students not knowing what is covered and what is not.”

But Mary Pozzobon from OSHC Worldcare said all students receive a policy document detailing which services are offered with their membership card, which is also listed on their website.

She said  they are also given a simplified version of OSHC’s services before arriving in Australia.

“It’s actually quite clear what is covered, only student’s often don’t read that,” she said.

AFIS’s Ms Noor said  paying up-front costs for mental health services such as psychologists was also a problem for international students.

She said many were  unable to afford the full fee up-front for a psychologist before receiving a partial rebate from their health care provider. But she conceded this problem was not unique to international students, affecting many Australians facing health issues as well.

OSHC’s Ms Pozzobon said difficulties often arise when explaining out-of-pocket expenses to international students, as they did not always understand they would have to cover part of the payment to see a psychologist before being rebated.

She said while OSHC Worldcare could make payments directly to psychologists, it was up to those psychologists to set this up.

City of Melbourne councillor Jennifer Kanis said the city council has an international student lounge called The Couch where students can access free  information about mental health services.

“Mental health needs to be a focus for all members of the population,” she said.

For more information on overseas students health cover, click here.

If you are experiencing problems with your mental health visit Beyond Blue

Were you aware you were covered for mental health services by your medical insurer? Have you had problems accessing mental health services? Leave a comment or email us at