Patrick Au: a champion for international students in New Zealand
Mental health clinician Patrick Au is one of the quiet heroes of the international education sector in New Zealand.
He has spent more than two decades working with international students and Asian migrants in primary and tertiary healthcare settings, understanding their mental health needs and advocating on their behalf.
Patrick is a registered psychiatric nurse and counsellor who migrated from Hong Kong in 1991, completed his Master’s in Education in 1999, and has worked tirelessly to support Asian communities in New Zealand. He is now stepping down from his role as Asian Mental Health Coordinator for the Auckland District Health Board to commit more time to private practice.
It was Patrick’s emerging reputation for specialty expertise which led to the International Education Association ISANA asking him in 2010 to prepare a presentation to international education providers about the mental health needs of international students. This was quickly followed by a contract with the Ministry of Education to present a series of workshops nationally.
“I was overwhelmed by people calling me and asking me for advice,” Patrick says. “This is where I seriously started my work with international students.”
In more recent years, Patrick has been a key player in the Auckland Agencies Group, which brings together multiple organisations with the common goal of enhancing student wellbeing.
The issues which international students can face vary, depending on their age and stage of education. For younger school students it can be homesickness and lack of parental guidance. Older students also face settlement issues but can have the added pressure to succeed.
“People come here to study and so they need to be successful,” he says. “From an Asian perspective, we are a collectivist society. Your success is not just for yourself, the grades and glory are for your family too. If you are successful at your study you are acknowledged as a successful person, but what if you’re not able to finish your study? The pressure is on you.”
Prevention and awareness key to mental wellbeing
Patrick is a great believer in the importance of awareness and prevention when it comes to mental wellbeing and says New Zealand has made good progress with the availability of resources which students can access on campus, through workshops, and online. Support services are widely established, and the International Students Wellbeing Strategy ensures government agencies work together to support international students to feel safe, well, and welcome in New Zealand.
“Most Asian cultures believe the body and mind are not separated. So we need to address the root cause of problems in behaviourial terms - how to adapt to the new environment, how to get better sleep, how to cope with exam pressure, how to eat well, rather than talking about mental health. When they hear these two words they will withdraw from you,” he says.
“There is very limited mental health education in the students’ home countries, but with all the online resources available here students are researching the issues. There is much wider awareness, and sometimes it is friends who recognise issues and offer peer support in seeking help.”
Patrick knows that some students come up against cultural intolerance and misunderstanding but says that New Zealanders have come a long way since the early days of the international education sector in understanding the challenges which international students can face, but also the contribution they make to society here.
International students talented and motivated to contribute
“International students bring cultural diversity and increase cultural awareness among New Zealanders,” Patrick says. “The students who come here are quite talented and motivated to contribute. Once they have completed their education, they can contribute in many ways.
“International students bring cultural diversity and increase cultural awareness among New Zealanders” – Patrick Au, mental health expert and international student advocate
“International students can be the bridge between their home country and New Zealand. If you want to do business in these countries, international students can play an important role as they often act as informal ambassadors for New Zealand and can open doors to business.
“New Zealanders are also contributing to their success by creating a nurturing environment for them to complete their studies. Over the years we have seen lots of successful international students who have started working and contributing to the New Zealand economy after completing their education.
“If they have a positive experience, they are also instrumental in encouraging other students from their home country to come to New Zealand. I think it is a win-win situation.”