In recent years, AFS-USA and our partner country organizations across the AFS network have seen an increase in cases in which participant mental and emotional health is a focus of concern and support. These cases range from lower level or more mild concerns (such as homesickness, difficulty making friends, or student requests for counseling for extra support) to higher level or more urgent cases in which an emotional or mental wellness concern might raise significant disruption to the student’s engagement on program, or even raise safety concerns.
The AFS network can anecdotally attribute a variety of possible factors in causing this rise. In the United States as well as several other countries and regions of the world, social stigmas around mental health have shifted, oftentimes resulting in more open societal conversations and acceptance around mental health. Generational attitudes are also shifting, as in many parts of the world young people especially have tended to be active participants in these shifts. Global phenomena such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the restrictions imposed in most countries at the height of the pandemic, and a rise in the use of technology and social media as avenues of socialization, also appear to be factors that have affected teen emotional and mental wellness worldwide on a continued basis.
Just like AFS approaches physical or medical health and wellness, AFS approaches to participant mental or emotional health will differ, according to the level of severity, urgency, or risk to safety the concern presents.
Experiences of culture shock, feelings of homesickness, and the natural lows in the cultural adjustment cycle can all be seen as relatively normal events for participants on program, and as participants progress in their program and learn the skills to adapt and navigate cultural differences and new relationships in their new surroundings, with volunteer and host family support and proper self-care, these matters will usually resolve on their own over time. Click here to view AFS-USA's Welcome Video for students regarding Safety and Emotional Wellbeing, in the Welcome to the USA – Hosted Student Handbooks and Welcome Videos section of this platform.
We encourage liaisons to consider providing their students and host families with a copy of the Emotional Passport which is intended to assist in providing students with various coping strategies for managing self-care and wellness.
Sometimes concerns regarding a student’s emotional or mental wellness may linger and not resolve with time. Sometimes a student may share certain feelings or show certain behaviors that may raise more serious concern about their mental or emotional health. Sometimes such a concern may be considered cause for discussing outside support for the participant, in the form of professional counseling or therapy. The AFS Participant Medical Plan includes coverage for mental health care, up to 12 sessions, and many students are able to thrive on program with the supplemental assistance of a licensed counselor or therapist. Host Families and Volunteers must report to AFS-USA Support and Learning Staff in any event in which a student’s mental or emotional health is a concern, and/or in which care from a counselor or therapist is requested or recommended.
Please note that as attitudes and societal norms around mental health are not always the same country to country, it is crucial that any discussion about connecting a student to a mental health professional be brought to the attention of Participant and Learning Staff. AFS is required to obtain permission by the participant’s sending parents/legal guardians before a student may receive care from a mental health professional.
AFS staff must be informed right away in the event of reported or suspected suicidal ideation or intention, feelings of depression or anxiety, reported or suspected disordered eating, or any circumstance that indicates that the student may present a risk to the safety of others or to themselves. Please contact AFS-USA Support and Learning Staff or the Duty Officer immediately by calling 800-237-4636, extension 9.
As is the case with medical care and medical professionals, AFS will similarly defer to the diagnoses and recommendations formed by the mental health provider treating the student in country. GMMI and their team will assist in confirming coverage for that care. In cases of serious mental health concern, or cases in which the safety of the student or others is at risk, AFS staff may decide that the student should be returned to the care and supervision of their sending parent(s)/legal guardian(s) in their home country.
As a liaison, we want to ensure you are aware and feel empowered to utilize both the personal resources (your local team, AFS Staff) and virtual resources (MyAFS Help and Learning, other online platforms) available to you which serve to provide information, guidance, and mentoring.
In recent years in the United States, as more people seek mental health care, accessing care for AFS participants has become, in some cases, a challenge. Many local counselors, practices, or centers may be full or have a long wait period. AFS-USA Support and Learning staff will work with your local area team in exploring all options for accessing care for your AFS participant in a timely manner. Please talk to your AFS Support and Learning Specialist for assistance.
AFS area teams are also encouraged to think ahead and identify in advance local providers that may be accepting new clients or patients in their area during the year.
If an AFS host parent or volunteer is a licensed and practicing mental health professional, they cannot provide formal care (including confirming a diagnosis or treatment plan) for an AFS participant for which they are in a direct support relationship with (I.e. a student they are a liaison or host parent of).