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Speaking Your Language about mental well-being

International students

International students discussed their experiences at the Speaking Your Language symposium on Feb. 20.

Great strides have been made in recent years to reduce the stigma surrounding issues of mental health and well-being. But for some students, they’re entirely new concepts. Speaking Your Language, a pilot program that launched in November and runs to the end of March, promotes mental-health awareness and support for international students and new Canadians in Canadian universities.

“In Canada, we are introducing these sort of issues in high schools: mental health has become a language that many of us understand, or at least recognize,” said Abu Arif, co-ordinator and designated learning institution representative of International Student Services. “But international students don’t have this. They often confuse mental health with mental illness. For a lot of them, it’s not something they’re taught in their culture.”

Funded by the Ontario government, the Ryerson-led tri-campus project (developed in collaboration with University of Toronto and the Ontario College of Art and Design) aims to create strategies to connect international students with mental health services. The biggest barriers to overcome have been cultural taboos.

“Some of our students from Russia told us, ‘Either you’re fine, or you’re crazy,’” said Arif. “There is a wide range of mental health well-being, and that’s often not understood cross-culturally. The whole concept of depression is not there, because they don’t discuss this.”

To combat this attitude, the project has created safe spaces to discuss stressors that affect all universities students. Monthly ‘Let’s Talk’ sessions at all three participating campuses deal with stress triggers, and are led by international student advisers trained in mental-health issues. A similar weekly program (Mondays, 4-6 p.m. until March 31) aimed at Mandarin-speaking students launched in January, facilitated by counsellor/social worker Hong Fook.

Both programs have downplayed the “mental illness” label. “We have introduced a ‘Let’s Talk’ series where we talk about these stressors, and not about mental health per se,” said Arif. “Our choice of words makes things easier to understand to native speakers, but for somebody who knows English as a fourth or fifth language, it’s often a barrier.

“Through the ‘Let’s Talk’ program, we introduce them to counseling, to mental-health issues, and to people on campus they can talk to if they’re not feeling good.”

To see a video about what mental health means to international students, go to

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