The UK government has changed its policy on international students, restricting them from bringing their families with them during their studies. This change to how student visas are allocated, the government argues, will help reduce net migration.

Scottish MP Carol Monaghan has been a vocal critic of the new immigration policy. She emphasises the substantial economic contributions made by international students, pointing to the impressive £40 billion they added to the UK economy in 2022.

Also in 2022, Russell Group universities reportedly warned that such restrictions could harm Britain’s economy, not to mention its reputation. In June 2023, Jo Johnson, former minister for universities and science, echoed this warning, saying:

As a strong advocate for international students in our system, I am conscious that there is much to lose from further crackdowns.

Public opinion is largely in favour of legal immigration. The UK public generally perceives legal migrants as having the potential to contribute positively to the UK. Our analysis shows, however, that the government’s new rules have the potential to significantly – and adversely – impact these very people’s mental health, particularly through what one of the authors (Olumba Ezenwa) has termed “cognitive immobility”.

Cognitive immobility

Cognitive immobility exists when your mind is stuck in the past, constantly replaying old memories or experiences about people, events, or cultures you encountered in places you lived or visited in the past, causing you to stress, which could be even worse. This can lead to emotional exhaustion and other mental health issues including anxiety, depression, social isolation and, in severe cases, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Informal stories or reports indicate that many international students may already be facing difficulties, even before the new policy has been put into place. The chemist, Chisom Chuba, who relocated from Nigeria to Ireland in 2020, has equated ending video calls with her family to the sensation of a plaster being torn from her skin. In an interview, published in November 2022, with the journalist Olayide Oluwafunmilayo Soaga, she said:

I don’t know if it is the sound of the call dropping or just watching the screen go blank with their image gone. But it is all I can get for now.

In Durham in Britain in September 2020. Credit: Reuters.

This description of feeling like a plaster is being torn from your skin suggests the onset of cognitive immobility. Without proper support, you might see your mental health deteriorate. This can lead to the second stage, which can be severe and even pose a risk of self-harm.

How new rules might affect students

The new immigration rules are set to apply uniformly to almost all international students. By separating families, these could exacerbate feelings of isolation, affect academic performance and trigger cognitive immobility.

Separation affects children as much as adults. Individually, it causes stress, anxiety, depression, mood changes and frustration due to negative family dynamics. It also represents the loss of your primary support system, which can make adjusting to a new environment particularly challenging.

International postgraduate students in particular are already found to experience heightened levels of depression, anxiety, stress and even suicidal thoughts, compared to the general UK population. As psychologist Philip Dimka told The Guardian:

There is a tendency for you to adjust more to a new environment when you are with your family, but when you are separated, you are likely to develop stress and anxiety.

Cognitive immobility unfolds in three stages: awareness/separation, retrieval and stabilisation. The awareness/separation stage is characterised by individuals feeling disoriented and confused as they grapple with persistent thoughts or longings for (familial) experiences or the places left behind.

In the retrieval stage, individuals strive to revisit or relive the places or experiences they feel lost. This process can be physically returning to those places or mentally recreating those memories, leading to discomfort, especially when these memories, such as the absence of loved ones, surface unconsciously and cause stress.

The final stage, stabilisation, shifts focus from trying to reclaim the past to retaining values and setting goals to cope with the sense of loss; this helps alleviate the feeling of entrapment. This is often the desired stage for those experiencing cognitive immobility.

There are four essential things you need in order to mitigate the negative impacts of cognitive immobility: a profession; a community or family; time for reflection; and good health. It is through developing coping strategies that tie in with these four elements that enable you to settle somewhere new and make a new home.

In depriving international students of the primary support system provided by their families, therefore, the new immigration guidelines may exacerbate cognitive immobility. The impact will be worse for students from some developing countries, where talking about mental health is disregarded or stigmatised. This situation will worsen if students do not understand the nature and seriousness of the mental health problems they face. This could put themselves and others at risk.

This is an urgent call to action. Without the new policies being revisited, and crucially, without more effective support services within universities, international students will struggle to transition smoothly, excel academically and thrive personally.

Chijioke D Uba is Senior Lecturer in International Business & Sustainability, University of Northampton.

Olumba E Ezenwa is Royal Holloway University of London.

This article was first published on The Conversation.