Orygen, which is based in Victoria, told The PIE News that while most Australian educational institutions provide some form of mental health support for their international students, service engagement is often limited.
The comments come after research was published by the University of Melbourne and Orygen in January which claimed international student deaths by suicide will continue if more targeted mental healthcare isn’t introduced.
The research was carried out after a 2021 Victorian coroner’s report that found 47 international student suicides had occurred in the state in the decade to 2019, as reported by The Guardian.
“While our recent research found no evidence-based suicide prevention programs available anywhere in the world, we did find that many educators and peak bodies undertake a variety of activities,” Samuel McKay, research fellow in suicide prevention at Orygen told The PIE.
“Unfortunately, this support is rarely tailored to international students’ cultural needs, which limits service engagement… Similarly, all educators have orientation programs that generally include information about mental health support and other programs to help students manage the transition to Australia, but again these programs do not appear to lead to effective service engagement.”
McKay said that findings from the Victoria Coroner showed that when students did engage with services, the pathways for support were often complex and not readily available, making it difficult for the students to obtain the relevant support when it was needed.
“In combination, what the current evidence shows us is that institutions want to do something about this issue, but in practice, the current approaches are piecemeal, lack adequate and sustained resourcing and don’t seem to be quite hitting the mark,” McKay added.
“Current approaches don’t seem to be quite hitting the mark”
“Ultimately, what we need are readily available services and programs that can meet students where they are and provide them with the support that they need in that moment. These needs are diverse and often related to the different mental health challenges international students face.”
Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, echoed concerns, telling The PIE that as with many study destination countries, Australia has a shortage of inter-culturally trained mental health counsellors.
He said that solutions to the problem are now under active consideration by the recently reinstated National Council for International Education.
“International education stakeholders have been concerned for some time now about mental health cases associated with overseas students in Australia.
“While the numbers are small in the context of hosting upwards of 500,000 students, we believe that the increase in cases has been exacerbated by some specific issues,” Honeywood told The PIE.
Recent research has found that lockdowns have overall “worsened problems like loneliness, stress, anxiety and alcohol misuse”.
Honeywood cited pressures associated with the Covid pandemic saying, “With both our national borders and our campuses closed throughout 2020 and 2021, overseas students who remained in Australia definitely experienced increased loneliness as well as a loss of income from part-time work.
“Even in 2022 we found that many universities retained a primarily online teaching mode which exacerbated the loss of campus life and face-to-face engagement for many overseas students. Happily, this year we are back to campuses being fully open.”
Honeywood also noted that when Australia’s previous federal government reopened the country’s national borders in December 2021, it announced that international students could undertake paid work for unlimited hours each week while they studied full time.
“There is no doubt that many students then came under mental health pressure, from families back in their home countries, to work long hours in order to send money back to struggling family businesses.
“We hope that this will lift a lot of the pressure off students”
“The new federal government has announced that the cap on work hours while studying will be reinstated from June this year. We, therefore, hope that this will lift a lot of the pressure off students who can inform their families that it will be illegal for them to continue working the long hours that they have been to date,” he added.
Universities Australia’s chief executive Catriona Jackson told The PIE that universities understand the range of challenges international students can face when they move abroad to study, from social isolation and language barriers to financial pressures and navigating a new culture.
“We also know that some students come to Australia with existing mental health conditions that may feel overwhelming to manage in a new country.
“Targeted support services are available at universities to help students navigate these challenges.”
She said Universities Australia works closely with organisations like Suicide Prevention Australia to ensure the right support frameworks are in place for both domestic and international students, and will continue to build on this work to ensure students can access the best possible support.
“Any student struggling with their mental health should reach out to their university support services,” Jackson added.
If you need support, help is available.
Lifeline: 131 114
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Samaritans: 116 123
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988
TalkSuicide: 1 833 456 4566