Toronto mental health centre offers culturally sensitive help


Online courses and pandemic isolation have taken a toll on the mental health of many students. But for those coming here from other countries to study, the stress is even harder.

That’s why Hong Fook Mental Health recently created a new program, specifically to address the needs of Asian university students in the Toronto area.

“I’d say the top thing is isolation because once people lose the opportunity to meet with others, face to face, they feel like they are losing connections between one another,” says peer counsellor Ambrose Jing.

The 26-year-old began at Hong Fook as a participant in the youth program. She says students have been doing courses and assignments online, without family or other supports in Canada. Even though more people are gathering together now, many foreign students are still hesitant to open up to strangers, especially in a different language.

Executive Director Bonnie Wong says Hong Fook has been helping new immigrants overcome language barriers for 40 years now.

“With translation services, escort services, so they have access to professionals to get help,” Wong said.

She says the organization began in 1982, when Canada began seeing a wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia, like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Later, immigrants from Hong Kong and then mainland China came, each group with different language needs.

Today, Hong Fook offers services in Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean, plus staff often speak additional Asian languages.

And the mental health programs are presented in a culturally sensitive way.

In many Asian societies, “mental illness may be seen as a kind of family shame or weakness,” explains Wong.

Statistics show that even without language barriers, 56 per cent of people in Canada aren’t getting the mental health support they need.

Ironically, for the new International Students peer support group, the main language of communication is English. But Jing says they sometimes break into their home tongues for some lighter topics, like foods and pop culture, both Western and Asian.

She says the program doesn’t offer therapy, so much as a safe space for young people to express their emotions and tell their stories.

And she has a message of hope for Bell Let’s Talk Day – “You’ll be doing alright.”