Monika Sidhu: International Students Face A Mental Health Crisis & Suicides As They Experience Exploitation, Isolation & Neglect

Financial turmoil, isolation from family and loved ones, difficulty and pressure to assimilate quickly, and stress are among the many factors negatively affecting students

Monika Sidhu
June 5, 2021 | 7 min. read | Original Reporting

Dozens of Sikhs gathered in Brampton’s Churchill Park last weekend for a kirtan in honour of the international students who lost their lives to the ongoing mental health crisis in the community. 

Justice for Indian Farmers TO led the gathering and invited the community to listen, have langar, and show solidarity with international students. The event followed COVID-19 guidelines. 

The group decided to take action after hearing about the death of Lovepreet Singh. He was a 20-year-old international student who immigrated to Canada in 2018 and, facing financial and immigration issues, died by suicide this April. 

A Gofundme page was set up by Balraj Malhi, an acquaintance of Singh, to return his body to family in India and help cover funeral costs.

Tajinder Singh, a 23-year-old Canada College student, helped organize last Saturday's event. He said that, as an international student himself, he understood the daunting nature of such a major move at a young age. 

“Most of the students come here at ages 19-21 so at that age, they’re not that prepared,” he said. “When they came here, most of the students have no one helping them,” 

After an ardaas paying respect to the students who are no longer with us, a discussion ensued on how to address mental health issues in the international student community.  The group recognized that international students are often treated as second class among the established diaspora as well as how they have been misrepresented in the media. It was also acknowledged that one’s mental health or illness should not be related to their faith because it is more complicated than religion. The group agreed that there needs to be more community conversations around this matter. 

The international student experience is very complex— financial turmoil, isolation from family and loved ones, difficulty and pressure to assimilate quickly, and stress are among the many factors negatively affecting students. 

Jaspreet Singh is a founding member of the International Sikh Students Association (ISSA), a collective created in 2016 that attempts to work as somewhat of a resource for incoming students from India. The ISSA connects international Sikh students with resources and, in some cases, established members in the community to help with their chosen career fields. However, the pandemic has limited the services they can provide.

“Most of the time, the things students ask us for [are] jobs and accommodation. Finding someone accommodation is still a doable thing right here…[but] it’s hard [right now] because of [COVID-19], finding a job is the hardest thing right now,” he said. “If you don’t have a job, you don't have money, you can't pay your school fees, you can’t buy something to eat, right? So eventually things start piling up.”

Jaspreet came to Canada as an international student in 2015 and attended Sheridan College. He said his first two years were relatively easy for him, but his third year came with stress and an onslaught of anxiety, largely from financial issues and trouble finding work. 

“Still, sometimes, I start having anxiety when I think about that time...Those days were really hard, but that was only one year for me. There are many students out there who felt those things throughout their studies for two years or three years,” Jaspreet said. “All of us are coming here for a better life, a better future, but some of us can’t bear the whole burden.”

In many cases, students’ families take out large loans in order to send them abroad. In addition to living and tuition costs in their new country, students also have to worry about loans back home. 

Amrit Singh, a 25-year-old computer networking student at CDI college, said he needs to work to send money home while also living and saving for his future. This can also be tricky for many as international students are limited to 20 hours of work per week.

Amrit came from Haryana to Canada in August 2020. He managed to find work during his time here but also suffered a severe injury to his finger in a chainsaw accident at one of his first jobs. 

“When I got the injury, the only person I could remember was my mom because I knew if my mom was there she would do anything to make it right. So that’s the day when I cried, but I didn't tell my mom because she must have been worried,” he said. “There are a lot of things that happen with students here but they keep it to themselves only, they don’t tell their parents so they don’t get worried.” 

It was a burden he had to deal with on his own. But not telling parents when something is wrong, or not seeking support is a much more common practice amongst students. 

“Parents have taken a huge amount of loan to send their children to a country like Canada, where they can get a good education and make a good future. So if students share their problems, parents would not be able to tolerate seeing their children in pain and they would ask them to come back. But, no student wants to go back because they know their parents have taken a huge amount of loan which they will have to repay with nothing to show for it; it’s the student’s duty now. That’s why we only tell our parents happy things,” Amrit adds. 

As a response to suicides in the international student community, the ISSA put out a call on their Instagram page for more resources for international students. They received responses from many organizations, and are so far getting help from the World Sikh Organization (WSO) and Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS). They are currently working towards creating a hotline for international students. 

The WSO also runs the Sikh Family Helpline, a non-emergency helpline that works to connect those in need with adequate resources.

Other initiatives are adding to the conversation by sharing international student experiences. The Brampton-based initiative Soch Mental Health, created the Pardesi Project in collaboration with Sheridan College and the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health as a way to tell stories surrounding mental health that may resonate with international students. 

One Voice Canada, a nonprofit organization that aims to bridge the gap between local communities and international students, released a report earlier this year on international student experiences

Balpreet Singh, WSO spokesperson, said they work closely with international students. Around four years ago the WSO began running outreach and orientation sessions for them. They worked with the Ontario Khalsa Darbar, where students often create first contact with the local Sikh community. 

With COVID-19 restrictions, the interactions with international students have also declined. 

Balpreet said colleges should do more to assist international students in transitioning to a new country, especially noting the high tuition prices that international students tend to pay. Despite the heavy tuition fees, many students are unaware of resources even in case of injury.

“These students are paying these huge fees and they don’t know what services are available to them,” Balpreet said. 

“I think the onus has to be on the colleges to provide better services geared towards these students. A lot of the finances, in fact, a very significant part of their budget is based on the fees these students are paying and they have a duty to give them the services they should be afforded just like any other student... [International students are] treated as cash cows, they’re being milked for the money and not getting the services that they deserve,” he said.

Most international students and organizations agree that colleges should do more to help their students. Amrit suggested allowing students to defer their high tuition payments would be helpful since work is not guaranteed and international students also have financial pressures from home.  

“Due to COVID it’s really difficult and back there in India they also have to survive. They also need money to survive and if they will send every penny here how would they survive?” he said. 

ISSA’s Jaspreet also agrees; he feels that colleges could give classes to international students that might include speaking to an officer from their respective region to speak to them about scams or hearing from someone who’s active in the community to teach the differences between India and Canada 

“It’s hard for any other organization, but I think the government can push the colleges to have these mandatory orientation classes. All colleges have their orientation but that orientation is just useless. That’s what I’ve seen over the years. They really need to change,” said Jaspreet. 

He does acknowledge that there are mental health supports available at colleges but there’s also the barrier of getting students past the stigma that exists around mental health in the South Asian community. 

But more than anything, Jaspreet said he wants to see community support and unity to tackle this crisis. Beyond the help from WSO and PCHS, he said it has been difficult to rally people together to contribute to the greater goal of a hotline for international students.

He expressed how dire the situation has become; he says the mental health of international students has gotten so bad with minimal help over the years that he does not even know where to start. 

And so, as kirtans are held and calls are made for help, the community and those doing the work are hoping that there can be some progress made to help the mental health of international students. More help from colleges, more help from community members, and more awareness on how to better support the international student community. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis within Canada please contact https://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/en/. 1.833.456.4566 

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Monika Sidhu is a journalist based out of Brampton. She covers topics of arts, culture, and social justice. More recently, she graduated with a Master of Media in Journalism and Communication from Western University. You can find her on Twitter at @MonikaSidhuu.


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