Unique Challenges for International Students – Talking About Their Mental Health
Everyone faces challenges—job stress, relationships, and even financial fluctuations can take a toll on our mental health. For young adults who are struggling to find their place in the world, these stressors can instigate crises.
Now imagine that young adult is taken out of his or her comfort zone and placed in a new country with different customs, unfamiliar cultural expectations and a foreign language. This is the experience our international students here in Canada are navigating.
Three years ago, guard.me saw the need to reach out to our international students and help them find healthy ways to cope with the challenges they face. We partnered with Morneau Shepell and created the keep.meSAFE Program, an umbrella entity that, among other things, provides information and counselling services to international students.
As a program manager and recent addition to keep.meSAFE, I’m thrilled to be able to share what we’re doing.
keep.meSAFE’s primary purpose is to provide the best mental health support to international students. Giving them a safe space to talk through their issues before they become crises, with someone who understands the unique challenges they face.
Besides offering counselling services, we’re hoping that we can normalize discussions about mental health in compassionate and productive ways. Our international students need to know we care about them and about their comfort while they’re studying abroad.
Creating an environment where talking things through is normal
Bringing mental health issues into the light and being able to talk about them objectively has been an issue for generations, even here in Canada.
The reality is that mental health awareness is not widespread. We’re seeing more of a push in North America, but mental health is not something that’s widely discussed in the cultures from which many of our international students come. In some instances, it’s actually stigmatized. People are expected to deal with their issues on their own.
One of the things keep.meSAFE works hard to do is create an environment in the schools where talking things through is normal, expected and safe.
When we talk about mental health, we jump right into the issues, and they go far beyond suicide hotlines or bipolar disorder. School stress, homesickness, relationship issues, getting the right amounts of sleep and food, and balancing social life and studies all play a part in healthy coping skills.
Mental health can mean a lot of different things to different people. One active definition of mental health is how a person feels and perceives daily life. It’s about whether they can engage and interact with work and academic surroundings and relate to the world in general. It’s feeling good, feeling healthy, and being able to be a productive member of society.
Providing someone to talk to
There are other programs available that, like keep.meSAFE, work to provide mental health services to international students, but there are a few things that set keep.meSAFE apart. One is the type of counselling our students get, and one is the variety of ways they can access information.
The best listeners understand where you’re coming from
This is one area where keep.meSAFE really stands out. When a student calls in for support, they’re immediately put in touch with someone who understands both their language AND who has the same cultural background.
For example, a student from Colombia would talk, in Spanish, to a counselor from Colombia, who is living in Canada.
To help protect the students with security issues, all our counselors are located in Canada. There are counselors available 24/7.
keep.meSAFE can also be used by staff at our schools. They are welcome to call in if they have a question about how to help one of their students.
Students can get the help they need in the way they feel most comfortable
I estimate there are close to 100,000 students across Canada within our current network of schools that have keep.meSAFE’s service available to them.
Some students only want more information. We see consistently high usage, with around 50 percent of the students getting articles, videos, and other information through a variety of technological resources, or actively reaching out for support when they need it.
These students access the service in a number of ways. Calling, texting, emailing or video conferencing are all available options.
Why I’m happy to help
For me, one of the most important things is the knowledge that our students are being supported. We’re making their experience far from home a safe one.
We, as an organization, really care about the students attending the schools in our network. Working for an organization and a program that is doing good things and actively helping other people is really fulfilling.
Jessica Poulin is Program Manager for keep.meSAFE