Douglas Todd: B.C. coroner fails to release suicide data for international students

Surprising that they are not releasing the data. In my experience, British Columbia is better than most in responding to ATIP requests:

International students in Canada and around the world are not only under pressure to achieve high grades. Many are increasingly expected to become permanent residents in their chosen country so they can eventually sponsor their parents and siblings as immigrants.

Given the intense expectations placed on many young students navigating existence in a foreign country, reports of suicide among them are rising in Canada, the U.S., Australia and Britain, their most sought-after destinations.

The China Daily newspaper recently ran a story headlined, ”Suicide stalking too many Chinese studying overseas,” which detailed a spate of suicides among the 330,000 Chinese students studying and working in the U.S.

The large newspaper, which many see as a guide to China’s government policy, urged public officials to find out why. Is it because of “fear of failing and disappointing their parents” or “the loneliness that comes with having to struggle on their own?”

After the suicide last year of Linhai Yu, a young Chinese foreign student in Richmond, China’s consul general for Vancouver also expressed worry about suicide among the 53,000 Chinese students in Metro Vancouver. “Incident rates among the group,” Xuan Zheng said, “have been quite high.”

The grim stories of foreign-student depression and suicide are pouring in from across Canada and the world. This fall, friends of an Indian student in Ontario blamed his self-inflicted death on Canada’s immigration department not granting him a work visa to stay longer. Similar stories from around the world show foreign students at higher risk of mental-health stress.

Given that B.C. has the most foreign students per capita in Canada — being home to more than 130,000 of the Canadian total of 500,000 — my senior editor suggested contacting the B.C. Coroners Service to put some numbers on how many international students have taken their lives.

We thought the information wouldn’t be difficult to determine, since the Coroners Service says it is a “fact-finding” agency responsible for investigating all “unnatural” and “sudden” deaths and making recommendations to “prevent death in similar circumstances.”

My first contact with the Service was in May. In the ensuing seven months, despite numerous communications, the service has failed to provide any information at all about suicide rates among international students. It has, however, offered a steady string of delays and excuses, mixed with large doses of obfuscation.

The B.C. Coroners Service either has no idea how many international students in B.C. have been committing suicide. Or it worries that being frank about it would be insensitive; politically, socially, educationally or psychologically. Perhaps its leadership team, with Lisa LaPointe as long-time chief, just doesn’t think the public has a right to know. We’re just guessing.

Meanwhile, a dire mental-health phenomenon continues to expand along with the unprecedented rise of international students, which politicians and educational administrators welcome for the billions of dollars they pour into local economies and educators’ salaries.

The suicide rate among all students in higher education has long been grave. A British report found university students were killing themselves at the rate of one every four days, the large majority being male.

But emotional stress is even more extreme on students coming in from other countries, according to Australian researchers, who are ahead of professionals in Canada in tracking the emotional difficulties they face with isolation, housing, language, education and immigration status.

Even though Australian coroners, consulates and universities were found to be suppressing details about overseas students’ deaths, the country’s federal government admitted earlier that 51 foreign students had died in one 12-month period. But it took outside investigators to point out that suicide was a key cause of the deaths.

One study in the Australian Journal of Psychology found that Chinese international students experienced significantly higher levels of stress than their Australian counterparts. Education Minister Simon Birmingham this year responded to pleas to better support international students by promising to release more detailed comparative data on their mental health.

Australian sociologist Helen Forbes-Mewett discovered some parents send their mentally unwell children overseas in the hope the health system in their host country is superior to that at home. But extra pressures and traditional cultural stigmas about mental illness, said the Monash University professor, typically compound foreign students’ vulnerability.

Forbes-Mewett says it is impossible to lay blame for foreign students’ mental health or elevated risk of suicide on any one agency. As she suggests, it’s “everyone’s problem.” But at the least more B.C. officials could follow the lead of Australia and release relevant data on suicide rates.

Otherwise the public is kept in the dark, and the private anguish of many overwhelmed international students will silently persist.

Source: Douglas Todd: B.C. coroner fails to release suicide data for international students

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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