When Alex Ma ’17 first came to Andover as a new international student from Beijing, she found herself struggling to adjust and sought counseling from a faculty at Graham House, Andover’s mental health facility prior to Sykes Wellness Center. However, East-Asian International students, despite comprising a large portion of students who suffer from mental health issues, often do not seek the help they need, according to Ma.
“In terms of mental health, a higher percentage of East-Asian international students experience mental health issues than any other group of students in the U.S.,” said Ma. “However, despite higher rates of mental health issues, they are also the least likely students to seek help from a professional mental health counselor.”
After conducting extensive research, discussing with over a hundred people, and writing a comprehensive paper, Ma stood in front of a large crowd last Friday at Kemper auditorium for her Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) Scholar presentation.
Ma’s presentation, entitled “Fresh off the Boat: Examining Mental Health Risk Factors and Counseling Barriers Among East Asian International Students,” discussed the cultural and personal blocks that prevent East-Asian students at Andover from seeking necessary help to combat stress and mental health problems.
Ma described how her personal experience as an East-Asian International Student, alongside those of her peers coming from similar backgrounds, inspired her to pursue this topic. She outlined how different attitudes toward counseling in many East-Asian cultures prevent students from seeking help. Ma also mentioned that East-Asian culture has a tendency of keeping quiet about personal problems, especially relating to mental health.
“I was an international student from China and the transition was really hard for me… Graham House ended up being really helpful, but I felt like my friends who had similar backgrounds and experienced similar issues didn’t always use Graham House, and I wanted to look deeper into that,” said Ma in an interview with The Phillipian.
After outlining the factors that prevent students from reaching for help, Ma proposed potential solutions for adjusting this pressing issue. In particular, she emphasized a need for both individual and institutional changes to ensure that students have a better understanding of mental health resources available.
“One barrier to counseling is that students feel uncomfortable opening up to a stranger. Opportunities can be made for the entire Sykes Counseling and Wellness team to introduce themselves to the students. This could be done directly to the entire student body in meetings such as ASM or special class meetings, or it could be done through intimate dorm and advising group talks,” Ma said.
Ma also encouraged student leaders to assist students around them who might be suffering from mental health issues in seeking necessary help from Sykes.
“In order to reinforce the social acceptability of counseling, students must lead their peers by example. This includes student leaders, such as prefects or team captains, encouraging members of their halls or teams to visit Sykes when they come to them with a problem, rather than suggesting that they just sleep it off or talk to a friend about it,” said Ma.
“Another way for students to feel less shame and self-doubt in facing mental health issues is to realize that other students are also experiencing similar things,” she continued.
Jungwoo Park ’19, an attendee of the presentation, said, “I realized a lot of the basic issues that international students face that I wasn’t aware of, and it got me thinking and taught me a lot about concrete efforts and steps that we as a community can take to combat these issues that these students face.”
Through her research, Ma hoped to educate students on and raise awareness for an issue that is not widely discussed. She also sought to help dismantle the stigma surrounding counseling for mental health issues.
“I think that the main goal of my presentation was to show students, especially East-Asian international students, but just anyone who felt that they couldn’t talk about their mental health issues… [that] their experiences are valid and that they could actually reach out for help,” said Ma in an interview with The Phillipian.
“It didn’t matter if they experienced stress once a term or all the time, they could ask for help and they weren’t alone. And I hope I came off as someone who could be an ally to these people and who they could come up to and talk to about this,” she continued.
Ma concluded her presentation praising Andover’s continual effort. However, she highlighted that the school must still work towards making every student comfortable in receiving and reaching out for a variety of resources.
“[Andover], in comparison to many other schools, has exceeded in providing academic and mental health support systems to relieve students of stress and other mental health issues. However, this is the difference between achieving equality and achieving equity,” said Ma.
“Equity entails that everyone feels the same amount of confidence and comfort in using these resources. In this respect, I think that more can be done to empower not just East Asian international students, but any students who avoid counseling due to stigma and misperception,” she continued.