At Western University, a wellness circle for Chinese international students

In the wake of several student deaths this year, students at Western University have developed a wellness circle.

Organizers say culture shock and high academic pressure can take a toll on international students

A group of at Western University have started up a wellness circle aimed at Chinese students. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

In the wake of several student deaths at Ontario universities, a group of students at Western University have started up a wellness circle aimed at helping Chinese international students.

The group is organized by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) in partnership with Western's Wellness Education Centre. 

Although mental health is a concern for many students, culture shock, distance from family and extreme academic pressure can take a particular toll on international students, said Shuwen Huang, president of the CSSA.

Shuwen Huang is the president of Western's Chinese Students and Scholars Association. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

"Last year for myself is very dark," said Huang, who said he struggled in his coursework and ultimately decided to switch programs.

This sort of situation can be difficult to explain to parents back home, who expect straight-As and don't understand the added difficulty of studying in a second language, he said. 

"I think the success those parents want and the problem the kids are facing... It's a totally different world," he said.

Huang said he felt better after spending time with fellow students in the CSSA. 

The group has been in London for 20 years now. It helps Chinese international students deal with the practical side of coming to Canada — from opening up bank accounts to signing a phone plan.

The wellness circle builds on that mandate by helping students with the more emotional side of studying away from home, he said. 

"[We're] just trying to make students have a strong mind, and trying to make them confident facing any problem," said Huang.

How it works

Ben Khoo works with the Wellness Education Centre. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

The aim is to teach students that it's okay to struggle with mental illness, and to show them practical ways to feel better.

"It just provides a safe environment for people to talk, whether it's within the circle in the hour we have or afterwards. We just have a conversation about what's going on in our daily lives," said co-organizer Ben Khoo, who works with Western's Wellness Education Centre. 

But it's not just a venting session.

Drawing on the idea that mental health involves all parts of life, Khoo said each week aims to teach students a different skill. One week was focused on having difficult conversations and an upcoming session will be about leadership. 

Although these lessons could be useful for any student, Khoo said it's important that the group leaders understand where Chinese international students are coming from.

"We have the experiences that may resonate with the people who are coming here, so we do understand certain aspects of what they're experiencing and we can share some of what's going on in our lives as well," he said. 

Another important piece is that the group's leaders speak Mandarin. So, if students in the circle don't understand a given concept, it can easily be translated. 

Khoo said he has his own personal connection in the issue.

He is from Malaysia originally, but went to a Chinese local high school and experienced his own version of a culture shock. 

"It kind of planted in me this seed that there are things here that are really different," he said. 

"I think what [international students] are experiencing is really different to what Canadian-born Chinese students are experiencing and to what the other people on campus are experiencing... That's why we wanted to have this group."