Heightened stress induced by financial difficulties, anxiety over failed exams and culture shock are among the main reasons for what some are calling a “disturbing trend” of suicides among Indian international students in Canada. The COVID-19 turbulence has added to these pressures, but help is available.
Six Indian students died by suicide in 2020, and two have taken their lives this year, High Commissioner of India to Canada Ajay Bisaria said at a recent webinar organized by Sahyog Canada, a community that supports Indian international students in crisis situations.
The webinar was held in response to the two most recent tragedies, which happened within weeks — one in Ottawa, and the other one in Brampton — as confirmed by Dr. Shivendra Dwivedi, a leading anesthesiologist in Montreal and a founding member of Sahyog Canada.
The organization decided to reach out to Indian students to “provide tools to manage your stress or be a support to someone struggling.” It was already their second webinar devoted to mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Counselling is not the only priority of Sahyog Canada. Rajesh K. Tyagi, a Sahyog team member, said the group also supports the family members of the deceased students, which includes logistics to send bodies home by getting the necessary clearance and coordinating with the airlines.
Many suicide deaths go unreported
Dr. Dwivedi said he believed the available data on student suicides was only “the tip of the iceberg” and that the actual number could be “significantly higher, for many deaths are unreported, unconfirmed, or are tackled by agencies and friends.”
His suspicion was confirmed by Dr. Amresh Srivastava, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the Western University.
“World over, suicides are unreported, and in Canada an average of 10 persons die each day, adding to the approximately projected 4,000 suicides each year,” he said at the Sahyog Canada webinar.
Yet, the problem of suicide among foreign students is little talked about, according to Douglas Todd, a journalist and author specializing in migration, ethics and diversity, who wrote about the issue back in 2019. The data obtained by Todd from the B.C. Coroners Service showed that at least 15 international students in the province (most of them young men) took their own lives between 2013 and 2018.
A similar trend has been observed in the Bengali Canadian community. According to the Bengali Information and Employment Services, a Toronto-based non-profit, 14 young men attending college or university in the Greater Toronto Area died by suicide between 2016 and 2017.
Stress as the main cause of student suicides
The main causes of suicide among international students include financial hardships, culture shock, poor physical health, academic underperformance, and lack of social support, said Dr. Srivastava, who is also a scientist of mental health at Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario.
“Stress is the major factor for psychological challenges among students,” he said.
According to immigration consultant Neera Agnihotri, most international students experience a culture shock as they navigate a totally different education system and social order. Few of them have any support in the process.
“They come into Canada, it’s a whole different system, the social aspect, the education system is different,” Agnihotri told Global News, commenting on a recent report by One Voice Canada, a non-profit she co-founded.
COVID-19 adds to students’ existing problems
In their incisive analysis titled The Realities of International Students: Evidenced Challenges, One Voice Canada pointed to rampant fraud and corruption in the student recruitment industry, “exorbitant tuition fees” and an “underground economy” where students are working illegally and are being exploited by their employers.
“International student suicides have become a disturbing trend in Canada,” the report stated. “The economic impact of COVID-19 seems to have exacerbated these problems.”
For Canada, international education is a very lucrative business, but for international students from India it is a heavy financial burden, especially since many families are taking loans to send their children to Canada, the authors wrote.
“To manage this financial burden, many international students are working illegally. This has put them in a vulnerable position, and many are victims of labour exploitation … The economic dependency of female international students is especially unsettling as it makes them vulnerable to sexual violence,” the report stated.
“You are not alone”
A concern that the pandemic-related restrictions would only add to the pressures experienced by international students was already expressed last year by the University of Ottawa President and Vice-Chancellor Jacques Frémont after a student was found dead in an on-campus residence in March 2020.
“I know that many of you, including our international students can feel particularly isolated being so far away from family and friends in a new environment and during a stressful time,” he wrote at the time in a letter to the university community.
As reported in the media, the apparent suicide was the sixth such incident at the university within a year, and although it did not appear to be related to COVID-19, Frémont worried that “these troubling times may exacerbate existing stress and anxieties.”
“I wish to take this opportunity to address all of those students on campus who are feeling anxious or overwhelmed especially in the context of current events. To you I say: You are not alone,” he wrote, urging students to reach out to mental health counsellors and to stay in touch with friends and family.
2021: Year of hope
With 642,000 international students in 2019, Canada ranks third globally in attracting foreign students, according to the most recent data by Immigration Canada. Around 34 per cent of Canada’s international students come from India.
COVID-19 did make many Indian students want to go back home because of the disruptions early last year, the high commissioner of India to Canada admitted. “We did accommodate as many students as possible,” putting them on flights back, he added. There are currently 236,000 Indian students at various educational institutions in Canada, he said.
For those who stayed, Bisaria sounded a note of optimism: “(With) improved vigilance from NGOs and sustained efforts from the High Commission and our two Consul General offices in Toronto and Vancouver, students can now be more aware and not resort to desperate measures,” he said.
“After a year of disruption, year of the virus, we are in the year of the vaccine. 2021: this is the year of hope.”
Gita Abraham is a journalist of 45-year standing and has worked in national dallies and magazines in New Delhi including Hindustan Times and India Today. For 15 years she was the Feature Editor of The City TAB in Bangalore. She was also a Professor of Journalism, at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Treading the thin line between fact and fiction, Gita has launched her debut novel “Daughter of the Blue Hills” early this year. She and her husband are snowbirds shuffling between Chennai and Ottawa. She has two daughters and two frisky grandsons who inhabit her world.