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Coroner calls for action after dozens of international students took their own lives


Mr Le’s father believed his son felt some academic pressure in light of his older brother’s success.

While his older brother had received a full-scholarship to study at Melbourne University, Mr Le was racking up annual debts of $40,000 for his studies and unable to access government subsidies for his course. The second-year student had told his family that his future career was uncertain.

Mr Le’s death is the second international student suicide investigated by Ms Jamieson. In 2019 she released findings into the 2016 suicide of Zhikai Lui, a Chinese-born international student who was also studying at the University of Melbourne.

Amid ongoing concerns about the wellbeing of international students, the Coroners Prevention Unit has uncovered 47 suicides of international students in Victoria between 2009 and 2019.

The majority involved international students under the age of 24 and 70 per cent were men.

As part of its research, the unit identified key themes that were common to these deaths: educational and financial pressure, isolation and homesickness and barriers accessing mental health support.

The coroner is now calling on the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate mental health services for international students.

They don’t have a peer group, they are away from their families in a foreign culture.

Professor Patrick McGorry

Orygen executive director Patrick McGorry said mental health services had been neglected at many universities, leaving local and international students with inadequate support.

He said 18 to 24-year-olds were at high risk of mental illness and international students were particularly vulnerable.

“There is pressure on them to succeed because their families had invested precious dollars in getting them to Australian universities,” Professor McGorry said.

“They don’t have a peer group, they are away from their families in a foreign culture. They may have to work, and if they do work they often work in exploited jobs where they are underpaid.”

He said new models of care, designed with young people, were needed to ensure students could access appropriate mental health support.

Bijay Sapkota, the former president of the Council of International Students Australia, fears the coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated mental health issues for international students already isolated from their families.

He said the move to online learning meant many of these students had missed out on establishing deep connections with their peers at university.

“A lot of students who arrived just before the coronavirus pandemic haven’t even had the opportunity to go to the university and experience the facilities,” he explained.

Mr Sapkota, who is now the co-founder of international student employment service Student Job Australia, said overseas students were also struggling to find work.

“They don’t have Jobseeker or Jobkeeper,” he said. “It is a challenging time for students who rely on parents to pay uni fees but rely on their own income to be able to support themselves during their stay in Australia.”

But the coroner acknowledged there had been improvements since her 2019 findings, saying Study Melbourne, Victorian universities, DHHS and the Commonwealth Department of Health had invested in initiatives to address the wellbeing of international students.

This includes peer support programs, community and healthcare partnerships, welfare checks, financial support and the inclusion of mental health information in orientation programs.

For help, you can call Lifeline 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 224 636 or visit lifeline.org.au or beyondblue.org.au

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