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Financial pressures, mental health struggles and addiction causing international student deaths

Community leaders are warning that financial and academic pressures, and the lack of structural support are factors causing the deaths of international students, primarily from India.

Nirlep Gill is an addictions counsellor at Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS) in Brampton, Ontario, who helps repatriate the bodies. He says some of the most common causes are “heart attack, suicide, overdose, and accidents.”

According to statistics gathered by PCHS and Lotus Funeral Homes, in Etobicoke, Ontario, since the COVID-19 pandemic an average of five international students die each month.

Gill says while the reasons vary, one crucial factor is the 60-80-hour work weeks he sees many students take on top of their full-time studies and the pressures that adds to their lives.

While the PCHS is unable to release personal records and exact figures due to privacy reasons, Gill says it’s common for students to “start taking drugs” to cope with the stress while still adapting to life in Canada. A study by the National Library of Medicine says that type of behaviour raises the likelihood of death.

Harminder Hansi, of Lotus Funeral Homes, explained that international students are “peer pressured” to try drugs wanting to fit in and thus often fall into addiction. Gill added that students struggle because they “don’t know how to quit, don’t know any resources, or where to go.” He says students suffer from mental health issues due to pressure to “earn money (while) living here” in order to repay their loans back home.

Anu Sharma is the CEO of the PCHS Foundation and founder of the Sunoh Charity, which works in partnership with PCHS. She says she receives an average of 10 calls a week from just one private college in the Greater Toronto Area (she declined to identify the college) from students who have tried to kill themselves. Sharma stressed that the number is likely larger but is going underreported. She says that because she is serving only one college in the area, she worries students at other colleges may need similar help but are not getting it.

Sharma says the solution lies in “awareness” and in pushing the government to help the students they bring into the country.

“That’s a $26-billion industry,” she says, referring to the money international students help pump into the Canadian economy each year. Sharma called on the federal government to “do something… to provide support so (students) are not killing themselves.”

A ‘big problem’

Brampton North MP Ruby Sahota, whose constituents include many people from the South Asian diaspora, confirmed in October that at least two of the most prominent funeral homes in Brampton and Etobicoke have told her “that they are seeing an increase in numbers” of international students.

Sahota said it’s hard to report exact figures because Peel Regional Police doesn’t differentiate “between suicides that are of international students versus those that are domestic students or just Canadians at large.”

“Anecdotally,” she says, she has seen families come from overseas to attend funeral services, and “oftentimes, bodies that sometimes need to be sent overseas.” She said over the “last few years,” she has seen more of those families in her office.

“If there is a disproportionate amount who are international students versus the domestic population, it’s interesting to figure out why that is and how we can solve it,” she told NCM in October at Sheridan College, in Brampton, following the immigration minister’s announcement about a task force investigating international student fraud.

However, at the time, she insisted “there are only so many levers” the federal government can pull, as universities and colleges are “overseen by the province.”

In an emailed statement, Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities said they have invested $24.5 million in 2022-23 in mental health supports for postsecondary students. The ministry also met with “postsecondary institutions, student associations, and related sector associations” over the past summer to better understand the mental health issues affecting students.

According to a 119-page report by Higher Education Strategy Associates, the funds contributed to Ontario’s colleges by just Indian international students surpass those given by Ontario’s government. The report noted difficulty in pinpointing the exact tuition number as “Statistics Canada chooses not to track tuition fees at the college level.”

NCM reached out to the immigration minister but did not receive a reply.

Manohar Singh, a Brampton Gurdwara leader, met with Peel’s Medical Officer of Health at the end of October to discuss the issues facing international students. According to Singh, the Peel medical authority said it “might undertake some kind of initiative to engage with the issue in a broader sense.” Singh said that he and his Gurdwara would “wait and watch while they move forward.”

Speaking with NCM at an October press conference, Sahota agreed that Ontario has a “big problem” when it comes to students coming unprepared and with few supports. She said this was due to the provincial government “overlooking the amount of licences that they are giving to institutions” that allow them to host international students.

“But from what I’m hearing, I find it hard to believe that they’re really monitoring these schools carefully, because a lot of students are coming with many complaints,” she said.

New Canadian Media requested a follow up interview several times with Sahota, but received no further comment.

Lorne Putman, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, New Canadian Media