How a student body is helping Indian students affected by mental health

By Indira Laisram
L-R: Pradyumna Choudhury, Sue Drummond, Karan Mehta

Pradyumna Choudhury, a student of Master’s degree in Medical Engineering at Monash University says the pandemic has hit him hard, as also many of his peers from India who are in Melbourne.

“I have seen first-hand how amongst my friends and even myself we were affected by the pandemic last year and there are still a lot of issues that we are facing staying in Australia, staying away from family,” says Choudhury, adding, “It’s a major issue that needs to be addressed.”

Concurs Karan Mehta, one of the founding members of the Indian Students Association of Victoria (ISA), “It has been a tough year for Indian students both international and local. We have received some grave concerns about financial stress, anxiety, loneliness family isolation, to name a few. The second wave in India added to these on-going concerns and impacted the Indian international students even more.”

While the pandemic introduced financial stress as situation back home were stringent, academic change from offline studies to online also didn’t make it easy as for most students.

“University was a source of not only group study and practical knowledge but also for unhindered WiFi network, which was much needed for online studies. We have heard stories of students eating only once a day to save money whilst they worked twice as hard. The restrictions of lockdown cut down the hospitality and cleaning jobs which were one of the prime source of income for students,” says Mehta.

No doubt the current situation in India, deaths all over the world, closure of educational institutions in parts and job losses have had a traumatic effect on many.

However, organisations and individuals are coming to the rescue of these individuals presenting a model of care. Take Sue Drummond, for instance, a counsellor and social worker, who has taught international and local students for 10 years and has worked as a social worker and counsellor for 20 years, mostly with migrants and refugees. Drummond wanted to support the Indian community “in a small way” and is now volunteering to be a counsellor for one of the projects run by ISA called ISACares.

ISACares is a pilot project run by the Indian Students Association to address the mental health issues of many of these students.

Mehta, who has been the overall in-charge of this project says, it was the lack of government support and its outreach towards international student community that forced individuals and patrons from the community to rise up and help these struggling students.

In conversation with Karan Mehta, founding member and director of ISA.

Karan Mehta
► How has ISA provided the support space for Indian students during this pandemic?

When the second wave of COVID-19 hit India, the financial and academic stress among students were added with anxiety, grief and worry about their loved ones, and created a detrimental impact on the mental health. Students approaching our affiliated club members and the long wait in university-based services is what led to the creation of ISACares, which is now going at a steady pace and is going to be extended further by a year through the support of NEAMI and Sue Drummond.

► In your assessment, have Indian students struggled to manage online learning remotely?

Yes, they definitely have. Most of our cohort believe that online studies are not as qualitative as offline studies. While some educational fields such as IT, Computer Science and online dependant fields have had minimum impact, in a broader sense, majority of fields that require offline and face-to-face requirements to gain valuable academic knowledge have been lost.

Getting the software to learn the same offline tasks online has been another challenge as we have seen many students not only having the technical resources and but also having had to either borrow/share or in some cases buy new laptops and PCs to get those software. This not only adds to a financial cost but has also affected students academically.

Another challenge is adaptation to offline studies. The professors who were trying to adapt as well had limited time to answer the individual questions of the students and the group projects were a challenge as limited information could be communicated via emails, calls and texts.

► What does this mean for most students?

All these challenges have had a negative impact not only on the academic performances of onshore and offshore students but have also created a negative impact of Australian institutes as an education provider amongst offshore Indian students. While some have taken extreme steps such as dropping the units/course and move to Canadian universities to deferring their subjects to waiting till the borders open, there are some out there who are weighing their already invested time and financial expenses over their need for quality education and are continuing in the hopes for a better tomorrow.

► Obviously, these examples are not representative of the entire student population. But what are the issues students in general are struggling with?

Yes, we at ISA or these students who have reached out to us do not represent all Indian student community but these students themselves have formed groups and have reached out to us via these groups whose leaders share with us the resonating thoughts amongst their members. Please note these are not only the individuals or our affiliated club members here, but it’s our offshore students who are taking more initiative to convey the thoughts I have mentioned above. One of the most common struggles is getting accurate information from the government, the inability to plan their future and the uncertainty in change of rules is what’s adding to the falling image of Australia as an education provider whose impact we see directly on its billions of dollars losses in the education sector.

► Any additional input on what all ISA is doing in regards to mental health?

Well, we are always trying to create a safe space for our students and are soon going to start two new programs under ISACares:

1) Mental health First Aid for leaders: We are going to train our club leaders in Mental Health First Aid which would give them the ability to listen to their peers, reach out to them and while not at a professional capacity but still be an initial pillar of support for the students seeking support.

2) A Friend Indeed Program: Where we will hold regular sessions for individuals to know how to hear out someone with a mental health issue without judgement and suggestions.

If we tackle the mental health challenge at our grassroot clubs then we can make it much more easier for our onshore students who are transitioning back from online to offline studies and for our offshore students returning to the country they know where help is available. Especially with there still being time to return we aspire to train enough individuals and normalise seeking help for mental health issues so that when our offshore students return our onshore students, clubs and their leaders and ISA Vic as an organisation is prepared to provide them a safe space to ease into this transition.

We hope the government, our patrons and stakeholders working towards the betterment of international students see this as a movement to raise not only the mental health movement amongst Indian international and the international community as a whole, but the positive impact of such programs will raise the image of Australian institutes and this country as an education provider. One thing is sure ISA Vic would continue to build a community that cares.

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