Peer worker project provides crucial support for international students

Peer worker project provides crucial support for international students

4 March 2022

When peer worker Elvis Martin came to Australia as a young international student 10 years ago, the term ‘mental health’ wasn’t on his radar.

“It was something that was never spoken about in my culture – it was like it didn’t exist,” he said. 

After going through his own mental health challenges, Mr Martin found himself needing support, but didn’t know where to turn. 

“I had no idea where to go or who to talk to,” he said. 

Now Mr Martin has become an international student mental health peer worker, using his lived experience to help other international students living in Melbourne. 

His role is part of a pilot project led by Orygen in partnership with higher education provider Melbourne Polytechnic. Funding from Victorian Government initiative Study Melbourne has supported Mr Martin's role and Orygen’s involvement in the project. A second higher education provider, RMIT is also participating in the project.

Since November, Mr Martin has raised awareness of mental health within the international student community at Melbourne Polytechnic, and helped students connect with support when they need it. 

He said often there is a stigma around mental health for international students. 

“Because of their culture, many feel ashamed to seek mental health support. From the culture I come from you don’t talk about mental health, so I relate to them,” he said.  

“I really want to educate and raise awareness about mental health so I can break down the shame around this issue and help international students understand what support services exist.”

As part of his role, Mr Martin has organised mental health walks and called dozens of students to connect with them personally. One student recently contacted him to seek mental health support.

“I was able to speak to her in her own language and help connect her with a support service,” said Mr Martin. 

Mr Martin said ongoing funding in this area is urgently needed. 

“I don’t want people to go through what I’ve been through. We really need more funding to employ more people like me, from diverse backgrounds, so we can help more international students access mental health support.”

Orygen’s associate director, employment and education partnerships, Gina Chinnery, said the goal of the project was to reach up to 100 international students experiencing mental health challenges.

“We know many international students seek support from their peers over traditional mental health support services, which is why this service is so important,” Ms Chinnery said.  

“We also know that starting university can be a stressful transition time for many young people. For international students, there is the added pressure of living in a new country away from family and friends, and often with a language barrier.” 

“In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has been another huge challenge for international students, with loss of income from casual work and the shift to online learning further isolating students from their peers. That’s why it’s crucial they are supported and encouraged to connect with mental health support services.”

Orygen is providing mental health peer work implementation support, workforce training and ongoing peer work supervision for the duration of the project.

Ms Chinnery said that it was hoped that following the pilot, the program could be rolled out more widely.