We started our project after the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic in 2020. When our American peers were able to leave campus and reunite with their families, as international students in the States, we faced severe traveling restrictions. Those who were able to get a precious flight ticket back to our home country have since then been constantly worrying about their ability to come back to the US. Those who had stayed in the US have been isolated, missing their family, friends and their hometowns.
However, we also found mental health services on US college campuses inadequate for Asian international students. First of all, these services don't address the lack of cultural acceptance in seeking psychological counseling. The need to see a professional for emotional struggles is often stigmatized as implying personal failures or weakness in personality in the Asian culture. Secondly, language barrier and cultural differences stand between international students and the counselors. Summoning the courage to go to a counselor is made more difficult with the expectation to communicate accurately one’s inner emotions in a second language. Additionally, when it comes to issues that are cultural specific, it is often hard to be understood.
That's why we founded a mental health platform to address these needs of Asian international students. We lower psychological barriers like mental health stigma by providing our service through a messaging app. We frame our service as “emotional support” instead of mental health counseling. We ensure the anonymity of students who come to us. As a result, today, more than a hundred students have come to us to process their emotions as if they were simply chatting with a friendly stranger.
We also started HEAL to lower cultural barriers such as language issues and cultural differences because our service is in Mandarin and we are their peers. As international students ourselves, we can totally relate to our peers who come to us: We understand the cross-cultural context, and we have gone through similar things during these difficult years of studying in a foreign country. Being their peers also means that before we talk to them, we are probably part of the normative pressure that they feel when it comes to voicing certain emotions. And by saying to them “Wow I just want to acknowledge that it’s very brave of you to share these with me” we can start to break the norm.