They say laughter is the best medicine. Jessica Holmes, a long-time member of the comedy troupe the Royal Canadian Air Farce, kicked off the conference by sharing her own mental health challenges and ideas on ways to stay resilient. She delivered anecdotes that were alternately hilarious and serious.

After the birth of her two children, Holmes found that she was so depressed that she could not get out of bed. She joked that her husband’s response was, “You relax and chill out. And come down in five minutes and make us breakfast.”

The comedian said that depression and burnout can be overcome with time. Exercise is one of the keys to maintaining mental health, she argued. “I would put on my exercise gear and vow to go to the gym and use that membership that I bought 14 years ago. Then you just sit down and watch TV in your gym clothes.”

The conference brought together more than 300 international educators from school districts across the country. Speaker after speaker emphasised that the sector had been hit hard since the pandemic started in early 2020.

“I was going to say it’s been a challenging couple of years, but apparently that’s already been said,” joked Randall Martin, executive director of the British Columbia Council for International Education.

“We are taking incoming students out of their culture and family support”

He waved a tote bag from the Asia Pacific Association for International Education conference, which was supposed to be held in Vancouver in March but was shifted online due to the pandemic. “I’ve got 3,000 of these bags to give away,” he said.

Several sessions addressed the issue of mental health for students, including identifying problems, providing support and reducing stigma. It’s a big concern. Samantha Morneau of Student VIP insurance says that an International Students in Canada survey revealed that six in 10 students experience well-being problems. Some 30% suffer from a clinical or major depressive disorder. The vast majority of international students feel overwhelmed at some point during their studies.

Daniel To, a district principal with Surrey Schools, discussed eating disorders, noting that these are mental health problems, not physical. His goal is for international educators to be able to pinpoint when students are struggling and may need professional help.

“It’s essential to know your students,” he argued. He called on educators to understand each student’s cultural background around eating and relate to them as individuals. Then schools should provide support and reach out to mental health experts if necessary.

One of the obstacles in helping students with mental health issues is that there is a stigma in many countries and cultures. Sometimes, parents will send a student to Canada, hoping that a “fresh start” will help them overcome their illness. However, students can be lonely and lack support when they first arrive.

“We are taking incoming students out of their culture and family support and putting them in a new environment,” said Mercedes Hayduk of Campbell River Schools International. “We provide a supportive environment for them but it’s challenging.”

Hayduk noted the importance of educating host families to notice and raise concerns about mental health. “They are on the front lines with the students and will be the first to notice changes in behaviour.”

She emphasised that there is no need to use words like “anxiety” and “depression” with students. This may cause them to withdraw and increase the stigma about mental health. Instead, international educators can ask, “Are you feeling sad lately?”

“We’re really happy that the pandemic has brought the issue to the forefront”

Several school districts are actively working to offer more services. For example, the Sooke School District held a session to explain that it had hired a Health and Wellness Coordinator to support international students. One of the key goals: reducing the stigma.

Michael Szabo, an emergency physician and medical director with Study Insured, noted that physical symptoms like abdominal pain, headaches and heart palpitations can actually be signs of mental illness and must be treated accordingly.

The fact that many people are struggling during the pandemic has increased awareness. “We’re really happy that the pandemic has brought the issue to the forefront,” Szabo said. “Mental health is health.”

International educators have also faced difficulties around social isolation during Covid. Conference organisers encouraged attendees to sooth their worries and enjoy the natural beauty of Whistler by going for walk in the woods or a run around local lakes.

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