During the past five years in British Columbia alone, 15 international students committed suicide. Four of these were just teenagers.
Males are particularly vulnerable since they lack social supports and are faced with parental expectations to succeed at school, find employment and secure permanent residency status in Canada. An Australian study found that 82 percent of international students who killed themselves were male.
Mental health concerns have an impact on all three international education sectors in Canada - post-secondary, K-12 and language programs.
Sometimes a student has already been diagnosed with mental illness in their home country. In places like China there is such a stigma about mental health that parents often refuse to secure treatment. Instead, they send their child to a Canadian school, hoping they can get a "fresh start." However, their mental health may deteriorate in Canada since they lack the support of family and friends, struggle to learn English and face cultural differences.
Fortunately, international education programs and service providers are finding ways to help.
About five years ago, Keith Segal, CEO of guard.me insurance, recognized that an increasing number of international students were being hospitalized for mental health problems. In order to address the issue, the company established a 24/7 multilingual counselling line in conjunction with HR giant Morneau Shepell.
"It offers counsellors who speak the student's language and understand their culture," says Jesse Poulin, Program Manager at keep.meSAFE, part of guard.me. "They can support international students in a way that Canadian counselors can't."
Guard.me offers customized service to each of its 60 institutions across the country, which include colleges, universities, school districts and private schools.
"There has been a huge shift in demand from students," Poulin says. If they are in crisis at 2 am, they want help right away and don't want to wait for an appointment at 2 pm at student counselling the following Tuesday. "We work with the institution to complement the services and resources they already have," she notes.
Stress, anxiety and depression are the key mental health concerns for callers to the helpline. Canadian students are also benefitting - for example, the University of Windsor has been offering the service to international students for the past three years and is now rolling it out to the entire student population. More than 100,000 students across Canada and the US have access to the line.
In addition to providing service at off hours, the helpline is reaching students who may be reluctant to go to a mental health office due to stigma. The company's data shows that 84 percent of those using the phone line have not attended on-campus counselling.
Guard.me is also being pro-active in supporting mental health and wellness on campuses by offering workshops and seminars. Recently, it sponsored a mental health art exhibit at Fraser International College in Burnaby, BC.
"We want to promote mental wellness and continue the conversation with students," Poulin says.