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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


CAPS is failing its international students

The front desk at Stony Brook University’s Counseling and Psychological Services. CAPS is located on the second floor of the Student Health Services building. PHOTO COURTESY OF STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY

This school wouldn’t be the same without its international students.

Stony Brook’s 4,685 international students are a crucial nutrient in the university’s lifeblood. The diversity of backgrounds and opinions they bring to campus are invaluable for everybody. They also pay more to come here than most of their classmates, bolstering the school’s finances without federal or state aid to water down the impact.

As of Fall 2017, more students come here from China than Brooklyn and Manhattan combined. We have a full-blown satellite campus in South Korea.

So why does Stony Brook, a university with 3,117 students from China, South Korea and Taiwan alone, have zero mental health counselors on site that speak Mandarin or Korean?

That admission comes directly from Julian Pressier, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Stony Brook University, who said counselors rely on the translation service CyraCom to communicate in the presence of a language barrier. For hundreds of students from India, there’s only one CAPS staffer who speaks Hindi, Smita Majumdar Das, and she’s a consult for trauma counseling rather than a counselor herself. The rest of CAPS’ staff list reads like a trip through some near-homogenous Midwest town.

We don’t even have any counselors that speak Spanish.

In all fairness, the international students I spoke to reported largely pleasant experiences with CAPS. They found counselors that were able to set aside their biases, do their best to learn about cultural incongruities between them and their patients and, most importantly, listen.

“The professionals are culturally competent and willing to understand if there’s a prominent cultural difference,” Azaina Muzavar, a former biochemistry major from India who graduated in 2017, said. “They will respectfully ask you to explain the cultural disparity. I grew up in Saudi Arabia and went to an all-girls school. Talking to boys and working on group projects was new to me in college. My therapist and I would to a lot about my cultural background and make comparisons between American Culture and the culture I came from. It was a growing experience for the both of us.”

But despite experiences like Muzavar’s, who speaks English and Urdu and said she’s more comfortable with the former, the linguistic and cultural barrier for international students seeking mental health care is still a very real problem. The best efforts of counselors to understand their patients can’t possibly beat the implicit cultural competency that comes with growing up in the same environment.

“We don’t have enough representation, languages and services for minorities nor international students,” Peer Mental Health Alliance (PMHA) Director and senior psychology major Allilsa Fernandez said. “The diversity plan, I feel, should be carried through our health care system on campus. It shouldn’t stop at providing diverse food such as the Halal place, Asian cuisine or the Caribbean dining. We should also provide diverse health care to meet the needs of different cultures and international students.”

That lack of understanding can have a horrific impact. The university makes huge strides to market itself in South Korea, a country with an infamously stressful school system and an astonishingly high student suicide rate. Suicide is the leading cause of death for South Koreans age 9 to 24, but the mental health problems in the country are still incredibly stigmatized.

Stony Brook could make itself a haven for mental health awareness and aid for its South Korean students. All it would take is a couple of counselors familiar with the Korean language and culture. Surely that’s not too much to ask.

For international students like Muzavar, cultural differences are much easier to communicate when both parties share language fluency.

I’m more worried about the students who can’t speak English well — those who might get along just fine with a research paper or 99 percent of conversations, but fall short of perfect when it comes to discussing their problems. It’s one thing to participate in class discussions. It’s another thing entirely to let somebody understand the innermost workings of your mind.

Maybe I’m not the most qualified person to talk about how an international student deals with counseling. But as a mentally ill person, I think I’m qualified to say comfort is paramount in the relationship between patient and therapist. A half-understood disclosure won’t cut it. A translator would violate the privacy that makes therapy effective. I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking openly about my depression issues with a third person in the room.

Fernandez put it beautifully at a PMHA event about mental health for minorities: “If you can’t be fully understood at all levels, then how can you be healed?”

This shouldn’t be a difficult problem to solve. Mental health counselors in New York make an average of $42,070 a year. It’s no secret that Stony Brook is having money problems right now, but even a handful of counselors who can speak Mandarin, Hindi or Korean would make a sizeable dent in the issue. A student’s life and well-being are too important. There has to be a way.

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