Two Chinese-Nova Scotians are setting up a mental health support service aimed at the growing community of international students from China.

They say there are few mental health options in other languages, and that causes many Mandarin and Cantonese speakers to turn away from help. 

"I've always had a passion to help newcomers," said Jinbo Chen, one of the organizers. "Mental health issues are one of the issues that I really care about."

Chen moved to Halifax in 2002 as a university student, and remained in Halifax to work and raise a family. 

He says Chinese international students face stress and mental health issues for many reasons, including loneliness and isolation, workload, and parental expectations. 

"A high percentage of them, it's not because they want to come here — their parents want them to come here," Chen said. "If they cannot achieve a certain level or score, it might have some stress with their family." 

Chen said many students are also coming to university in their late teens or early 20s, and may struggle with issues such as what direction to take, addiction problems, or romantic problems, all of which could contribute to mental health problems. 

'They preferred to speak to a person who speaks Chinese'

Chen is working to set up the service with Minzhou Sun, a recent international graduate from Dalhousie University who studied psychology. She's in the final months of a course in counselling skills and human social services at Success College. 

Sun said when other international students found out she was studying psychology, they often turned to her for support. 

"I suggested to them to see psychologists, a professional counsellor, years ago. They told me it didn't work. They preferred to speak to a person who speaks Chinese," she said. 

Sun says Chinese culture encourages people to express empathy and feelings through behaviour rather than through words, and terms such as "depression" and "anxiety" are relatively new concepts in Chinese language. 

As a result, she believes it's more difficult for Chinese students to explain to a counsellor what kind of problems they are having. 

"Here, if you're going through professional help and the professional people ask you to describe your feeling, there's something that doesn't exist in our language. But people ask you to describe it. It doesn't connect," Sun says.  

She thinks some counsellors can become frustrated because they don't have the cultural background to understand why Chinese students find it hard to express their feelings. 

Services available 

According to the most recent available numbers from Students N.S., there were approximately 6,000 full-time visa students in Nova Scotia universities in 2012-13. 

Ysaac Rodriguez is the St. Mary's University manager of International Student Services. More than 30 per cent of St. Mary's students are international students. Of those, the majority come from China. 

Rodriguez said that it very important for all students to have access to professional counselling services and international students face additional challenges. 

"You have to take into consideration that they are in a different environment, a different culture — all the stress that comes with leaving one's country and coming to a place that, sometimes, they leave home for the very first time," he said. 

Rodriguez said SMU has two Chinese-speaking translation staff who assist counsellors, as well as a peer services network. The Nova Scotia Health Authority offers interpretation services face to face and through a language line telephone service. 

Peer support group

Sun and Chen plan to set up a peer support group on Chen's website, which he set up as a messageboard service for the Chinese community in Halifax.

They hope to eventually find funding to formalize the service. They intend to make the service open to everyone. For more information, the group can be reached by email at