Foreign students' lives are at risk because of a lack of culturally-appropriate counselling and mental health support, health services warn.
Staff from Auckland District Health Board and Asian Family Services told the ISANA International Education Association conference in Wellington they were seeing more international students who were suicidal or suffered problems including anxiety and drug, alcohol or gambling addiction.
The team leader for Asian Mental Health at Auckland District Health Board, Patrick Au, said the increase was driven by increasing numbers of foreign students in Auckland in recent years.
He said some of the students referred to the DHB's mental health team had threatened suicide and he feared tragedy unless more support was offered earlier.
"It's only a matter of time before someone may kill themselves or some schools may have difficulty recruiting students because of the bad image we have in dealing with mental health needs," he said.
Mr Au said education providers should provide support services that were specifically tailored to their international students.
"Linguistically they will have to be appropriate, culturally they need to be appropriate and they need to be able to engage the students because mental health is still a stigma for the international students and also to the parents," he said.
Asian Family Services counsellor Shirleen Prasad said the organisation saw 200-300 foreign students last year for a variety of problems including gambling, drug and alcohol addiction and depression.
"I personally think as a clinician there's a much bigger problem," she said.
Ms Prasad said students needed support not only in the first couple of weeks after they arrived in the country, but also several months later when they had got over the initial "high" of life in a different culture.
Asian Family Services national director Kelly Feng, said it was getting more referrals from tertiary institutions and more direct contacts from foreign students.
"From our helpline there will be more mental health and relationship and stress-related [problems] but also for our gambling client perspective there are more referrals for international students with gambling problems, particularly Chinese and Indian students," she said.
Ms Feng said education organisations should provide better orientation, including sex education, and also more early intervention for students who showed signs of stress or depression.
She said international students often did not know where to go for help.
"A lot of international students, where they come from mental health is never talked about and emotional wellbeing is pretty ignored and neglected probably, and people are expected to be tough and get on with their life," she said.
"But international students, when they come here, it is quite a vulnerable stage and they need a lot of support and strengthening and skills in order to survive and do better."
International Education Association chief executive Chris Beard said its members were aware of the need for support services tailored to students' languages and cultures.
"There are issues being raised around providing services that are tailored, that is, services that make it easy for students to access because they're in a new culture, a new environment, they might be here in their first six to 12 months, there are a range of issues they are grappling with so we really need people in that space who are experienced with international students," he said.
Mr Beard said specific qualifications for international education staff were a "critical" next step for New Zealand's education industry.
"The development of courses, of international education specialists, is going to be, we think, the next important step in shoring up sustainability and providing the kind of specialised international students need," he said.
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