Mass General’s Center for Cross-Cultural Student Emotional Wellness is initially focused on international students from China.

The Center for Cross-Cultural Student Emotional Wellness at Massachusetts General Hospital supports the mental health of international students from non-Western cultures. In 2014, three Boston-area psychiatrists founded the center as a result of treating increasing numbers of such students for anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

“By focusing on education and prevention, we hope to reduce the need for treatment.”

The founding psychiatrists are Justin A. Chen, MD, MPH, and Albert S. Yeung, MD, ScD, both of Mass General, and Lusha Liu, MD, who is in private practice. As bicultural individuals, parents and mental health clinicians themselves, they agree that education is the foundation to preventing serious problems.

The center’s primary work involves raising awareness and building coalitions that include parents, educators, researchers and psychologists. The goal is to improve understanding of cross-cultural differences that affect emotional health. The psychiatrists also offer individual, group and family therapy sessions in person or via Skype. Families learn how to communicate better and how to handle the long-distance nature of their relationship.

Albert S. Yeung, MD
Albert S. Yeung, MD

Supporting Chinese International Students

About one third of the nearly 1 million U.S. international students annually come from China. Because of these numbers and the background of the center’s founders, the MGH Center for Cross-Cultural Student Emotional Wellness is initially focused on Chinese international students.

In addition to his role as director of Primary Care Research at the MGH Depression Clinical and Research Program, Dr. Yeung serves as a staff psychiatrist and co-medical director at South Cove Community Health Center in Chinatown. He is also the author of a landmark study of Chinese immigrants that demonstrated how reducing cultural barriers significantly increased the recognition and treatment of depression in this underserved group.

In China, there are asylums but no mental health system, Dr. Yeung says, adding that the lack of awareness and the stigma around mental health conditions may mean that struggling Chinese international students and families are unaware of services or are reluctant to seek help.

Educating schools about the challenges faced by international students is also a key focus for the center.

Focus on Education and Prevention

Educating schools about the challenges faced by international students is also a key focus for the center. In presentations to school administrators and dorm leaders, the psychiatrists compare Chinese and Western models of education and describe how to spot warning signs of emotional problems and what to do about them.

“While the schools enjoy the diversity of the students and the financial benefits that they bring, they are often unable to support these students because of cultural and language barriers,” says Dr. Chen, a psychiatrist at the MGH Depression Clinical and Research Program who specializes in cross-cultural psychiatry, stigma and mental health services disparities.”By focusing on education and prevention, we hope to reduce the need for treatment,” he adds.

Justin A. Chen, MD
Justin A. Chen, MD

More Research Needed

A study of Chinese international students at Yale University found that nearly half had symptoms of depression and 29 percent showed symptoms of anxiety. In comparison, one study of university students in China, found just 11.7 percent with depressive symptoms, suggesting mental health problems were more common for the international students. “Much more systematic research on the prevalence, causes and trajectory of mental health problems is needed,” Dr. Chen adds. “Understanding the issues will help us develop better strategies to engage and support students and families.”

In a short time, the center has attracted attention from top mental health clinicians, educators and researchers regionally, nationally and internationally who are passionate about promoting the mental health of international students and advancing knowledge in the field.

For more information about supporting the efforts of Mass General’s Center for Cross-Cultural Student Emotional Wellness, please contact us.