June 24, 2024

Serene Nest

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‘The land of nobody’: Calgary researchers study gaps in mental health services for international students

3 min read

As former international students themselves, researchers Shamsa Mistry and Monica Sesma Vazquez know exactly how challenging it is to move to Canada for an education.

But the University of Calgary research coordinator — and the social work assistant professor — both say there’s a gap in research among international students in the country, despite Canada hosting more than one million international students. 

It’s why Misry and Sesma Vasquez set out to examine the mental health of current and recently-graduated international students and the gaps in services available to support that group.

“I came in 2021 with my family, two kids, my husband and had my own journey, my own struggle navigating how to survive and how to live as an international student with my family,” said Mistry.

“We decided to look into this deeper and have a research study where we can speak to the voices of these international students both with and without families and how their mental health and well-being is managed.”

The University of Calgary sign is pictured at the campus entrance, on a sunny fall day.
The latest data shows that roughly 7,000 international students attend the University of Calgary. (CBC)

The pair, supported by research assistant Karen Lazaruk, say international students and their families often fall through the cracks of the system.

The team is hoping to hear from 200 of the University of Calgary’s roughly 7,000 international students about their lived experiences and suggestions to enhance existing supports.

Falling through the cracks

The research comes shortly after the federal government implemented a series of new requirements for prospective international students, including a cap on study permits and increased access to funds.

In turn, advocates have said international students are being scapegoated for housing and job shortages.

Mistry’s supervisor and the project’s principal investigator Monica Sesma Vazquez said it could all be the result of miscommunication between the government and post-secondary institutions, who likely believe the other party is supporting these students.

In reality, many resources available to newcomers are restricted to new immigrants, refugees and permanent residents — while international students fall through the cracks, she said.

“Many of these crises like housing, medical supports, mental health supports — I think it’s because all of these international students fall in the land of nobody,” said Sesma Vazquez.

Further, she said many foreigners come to Canada for postgraduate studies.

“That means many of these students come with families, and also their families fall in the gap of many things.”

Opening up the conversation

Isa Isip moved to Calgary from the Philippines in 2022 with her two daughters and her husband to pursue postgraduate studies.

She said adjusting to life in Canada was difficult, especially while completing courses with a lack of child care for her young daughters who were also settling into their new normal.

“It took a toll on me mentally,” said Isip.

A woman's headshot
Isa Isip is an international student who’s currently taking project management with the University of Calgary’s International Professionals program. (Submitted by Isa Isip/Allen Pangan)

She could no longer connect with her therapist back home because of time zone differences. When she reached out to the university’s counselling support services, she was told she missed the deadline.

Coming from a culture that isn’t very outspoken about mental health, Isip said she often felt like she was on her own.

That’s why she said this research project is long overdue.

“I think this will open a lot of conversations about mental health and mental health preparedness when you are preparing to uproot yourself and bring yourself to another country.”

Expanding research nationwide

As for Mistry and Sesma Vazquez, so far, they’ve completed seven interviews and received 28 completed survey responses.

Their research so far has found that international students’ main concerns include loneliness and isolation, a lack of support to find a job in their field of interest, struggling to balance school and work and not being able to save money.

They’re hoping to interview around 40 students — half with families, half without — and receive 200 survey responses before the summer break.

“More voices will help us to come up with a substantiate recommendation for the university and for the campus’ mental health strategy,” said Mistry.

Their goal is to eventually expand their work across the country, so they can determine how Canada is faring compared with other countries like the United States, Australia and European countries.

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