International students in crisis are not accessing mental health support services they need, a Victorian coronial inquest into suicide deaths has found.
The inquest examined the deaths of five international students who took their own lives in 2020. The students were born in different nations, attended four institutions in the state and had various living circumstances.
Police were satisfied on the balance of probabilities that they had committed suicide.
The coroners court of Victoria heard the “striking feature” of the students’ circumstances was how little engagement they had with student services and external health services.
Some hadn’t disclosed their mental health issues or suicidal ideation with family and friends.
Victorian coroner Simon McGregor said there was “no concern” with the design or delivery of student services that had been provided by the universities during the investigation.
He said the tertiary sector was facing a different challenge – how to encourage international students to seek help and improve engagement with services on offer.
“None of the five international students engaged with health services in [the] wider community … The challenge may be even broader than this,” McGregor said. “How to encourage international students to seek help at all.”
The inquest followed a 2021 Victorian coroner’s report that found 47 international student suicides had occurred in the state in the decade to 2019.
McGregor acknowledged there were cultural, linguistic and financial barriers to seeking help in certain communities that had been longstanding, adding he feared a coronial investigation wasn’t the “most suitable mechanism” for reform.
In 2019, Victorian coroner Audrey Jamieson passed down her findings into suicides of international students who hadn’t sought health or wellbeing support from their universities or in the community before taking their lives.
During the investigation, the coroners prevention unit (CPU) found there was a lower prevalence of diagnosed mental illness among international student suicides (14.8%) compared with the Australian-born student suicide cohort (66.7%).
It also found just 22.2% of the international student suicide cohort attended a health service for a mental health-related issue within six weeks of death. By contrast, 57.1% of the Australian-born student suicide cohort had such an attendance within six weeks of death.
The CPU concluded there was an “underlying systemic issue” with engaging international students in mental health treatment in Australia.
At the time, Jamieson acknowledged greater international student engagement with mental health services was a goal “far easier articulated than achieved”.
McGergor said he “resonate[d] strongly” with her experience.
“Unfortunately I’ve not developed any clear insights into how help-seeking amongst international students might be promoted,” he said. “A coronial investigation may not be most suitable mechanism.”
He recommended the Victorian Department of Health develop a resource targeting international student wellbeing and ways for individuals experiencing crisis or suicidality to seek help.
He also suggested the Suicide Prevention Response Office review its quality evaluation framework and work relating to international students, to consider what resources would best assist universities to support health and wellbeing.
In February, research published by the University of Melbourne and Orygen found international student deaths by suicide would continue if gaps in delivering targeted mental healthcare weren’t addressed.
It found evidence-based programs catering to international student suicide prevention still didn’t exist despite record numbers of students returning this year.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org