The confusion has risen around a policy from Immigration New Zealand which states that all non-New Zealanders coming to the country must have an acceptable standard of health. Students have said they are reluctant to disclose mental health challenges in case it makes them ineligible for student visas.
“For an international student to approach mental health services, is a leap, a decision reached after overcoming a chasm of hesitations”
The issue has been highlighted in an open letter to Kris Faafoi, New Zealand’s minister of immigration, by student Varsha Ravi with the support of The New Zealand International Students’ Association.
Messages on an anonymous social media group, and seen by The PIE News appear to show that one recent graduate has taken their own life. This individual had previously cited concerns that if they sought professional help then immigration would not grant them residency.
“Immigration New Zealand states that an individual with an ‘unacceptable standard of health’ is ineligible for a student visa,” Ravi told The PIE.
“Many international students fear that accessing mental health services will tarnish such standards but in fact, the details of their records would always be kept sealed and would not affect their visa.”
“The letter highlights that it is not the lack of services but rather the misconceptions around accessing these services [that is causing a problem].”
Ravi said it is vital to understand that many international students come from cultures where conversations around mental health are still seen as taboo.
“Therefore, for an international student to approach mental health services, is a leap, a decision reached after overcoming a chasm of hesitations,” Ravi added.
The misunderstanding of rules around immigration has reportedly led to tragic consequences. In an anonymous group for students of The University of Auckland, one graduate wrote that they were feeling suicidal after struggling to meet the immigration requirements to apply for residency.
The individual said that they could not get professional help because they believed that immigration won’t grant residency to anyone with health issues.
In a subsequent post, somebody who said they were the friend of the graduate, reported that the graduate had taken their own life.
“While the University is very committed to the pastoral care and wellbeing of all our students, including and particularly international students, there is little we could have done in this situation,” a spokesperson for The University of Auckland told The PIE.
“We could not ascertain the identity of the person (or veracity of the event even) because of the anonymous nature of the post. However you will have seen the responses from the International Student Association and the University where people did their best to reach out to the person who posted about the suicide.”
The spokesperson said the university will always do its best to provide support to students who reach out for it.
“Support for international students includes the Government hardship fund (recently reinstated), increased TEC funding for student support, and a range of initiatives around mental health for all students. We work closely with NZISA, currently led by UoA students, and ISANA,” they said.
The spokesperson explained that since the advent of the Covid 19, the University of Auckland has been working with the tertiary sector and Government to champion for international students and graduates particularly around study and work visas.
“The pandemic has caused an unprecedented situation and everyone doing their upmost to ensure people are not disadvantaged by it. We are aware that the Government has subsequently announced a pathway visa to residence that the graduate would have been eligible for,” they added.
“These are issues and concerns that ring synonymously with every international student and to lose an individual to concerns that can be mitigated, is heartbreaking,” Ravi said in the open letter.
The letter called for the government to address misconceptions regarding accessing mental health services and the implications it has on visas.
“Immigration New Zealand understands that waiting for a visa application to be decided may create uncertainty for applicants and their whānau. We are very saddened to hear about this recent tragedy,” Immigration New Zealand told The PIE.
“We encourage international students to seek out appropriate care and support to ensure their own health and safety. While all visa applicants do need to be upfront with their medical conditions, so we can assess their circumstances against immigration instructions, it is important to understand that a visa application will not be automatically declined just because a health condition has been disclosed.
“Each application is carefully considered on its own merits which includes the applicant’s specific circumstances. For more information see our Immigration media factsheet: Health requirements on the INZ website.”
“Other international students are also hesitant to seek mental health services when knowing that our international student insurance only covers a small proportion of mental health services. We are also aware of the long waiting line to be accepted into a counselling session,” NZISA told The PIE.
“The services provided by institutions are not sufficient. International students onshore, stuck in this country, having not seen their families and loved ones for at least two years now, also experience homesickness.”
NZISA highlighted how international students offshore have a “different set of struggles”.
Due to the limitations and laws imposed on practising counselling/therapy (whereby a counsellor is only allowed to practice in this country), NZISA said that international students offshore do not have access and support as much as they should have.
“We are constantly frustrated as we also do not know how to assist our friends offshore”
“Living and studying abroad is a big ask during a pandemic. We are seeing a surge in mental health issues amongst international students and we are constantly frustrated as we also do not know how to assist our friends offshore,” they told The PIE.
“We know mental health can be challenging for students, especially those studying away from home. Support is available, and students are encouraged to stay connected and seek support from medical practitioners, providers and student support services,” Andy Jackson, acting deputy secretary, Graduate Achievement, Vocations and Careers at the ministry of education told The PIE.
A government spokesperson shared links to resources to support student wellbeing: Advice for tertiary students – Education in New Zealand, Health and wellbeing support for tertiary students – Education in New Zealand.
Students who are experiencing mental health problems can access the following national helplines:
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor. Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP).
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).
Healthline – 0800 611 116 Samaritans – 0800 726 666