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Gaijins of Japan: International Students Making Progress for Mental Health Awareness

Written by: Abbey Kruska

Published: October 14th, 2019

22 year old Khaled Stanbouli is challenging the Japanese mental healthcare system. He single-handedly conducted a survey on over 420 students at a prestigious Japanese university in Tokyo in order to show those in power the importance of the mental health of students.
Khaled Stanbouli presenting to Japanese university officials

Meet 22 year old Khaled Stanbouli, an Australian-Lebanese university student, and the leader of a small revolution. Khaled first came to Japan a year ago in 2018. He had been studying International Relations in East Asia and Japanese at Western Sydney University, and had recently been accepted to a prestigious Japanese University in Tokyo. It was then that Khaled, who had always had an interest in Japanese society and mental healthcare, took notice of a very serious problem among his peers, and decided to set out to make a difference.

 

“The traditional Japanese mindset tends to be, “if you complain, you’re weak.”

 

“Though Japan is criticized for poor mental healthcare systems on an international level, change still hasn’t happened,” Khaled tells us, “the traditional Japanese mindset tends to be, ‘if you complain, you’re weak.’”


Khaled took notice of Japan’s (rather inadequate) mental health support system right away. He noticed an overwhelming amount of people both internationally and in Japan were under the impression that Japan’s suicide rate was going down, when in fact an epidemic was happening. True, Japan’s suicide is the lowest it has been since 1978.

However, on the other hand, and much less likely to appear on the news, is the fact that the rate among youths is the highest it has been in 30 years, and still rising.

Khaled had heard that when it comes to issues within the school the president was more likely to listen to international student’s voices than Japanese students, and he decided it was time to speak up. He had felt a number of “walls” within Japanese society, sensed a clear disconnect between the people, and wanted to give both the foreign and Japanese students around him a chance to be heard.


Khaled's university campus, located in Tokyo

Khaled’s Research


Over the course of 3 months, Khaled surveyed over 420 Japanese and International students as well as a small number of staff at his Japanese university. Khaled’s survey included 22 questions, ranging from medical history to the causes of stress in students’ lives. The findings of his extensive research and interviews were reported to the directing manager of the university, and he spoke one-on-one with the head of the international department to discuss barriers and problems with mental healthcare systems, and how international students fit into that puzzle.

Though successful, Khaled tell us that his research was not met without opposition--both from the staff and surprisingly, even some students.


“Though over 80% of the students acknowledged a lack of services for people experiencing mental health issues, 48% of staff members interviewed stated there was no lack of services, and that the services in place were enough. The common opinion among university staff was that the means in place were already sufficient, and that it wasn’t such a problem. On the other hand, well-off Japanese students said they couldn’t trust the results--that students may lie or over exaggerate their problems.”


Should there be more social support for students? 学生のためのメンタルヘルスサービスを増やすべきだと思いますか?


Khaled’s survey also included some short answer questions which allowed students to personally express their experiences and opinions.


Here are some of the student’s answers.


“Including the people who want to talk but feel they can’t, I think there’s a lot of students who are too embarrassed. Or, for example, even if there was a place we could go, being embarrassed of being seen… In my experience, especially Japanese people … aren’t good at expressing themselves, so it would be nice if the professionals would make an effort to talk to us, or if there was an online service like LINE available for counseling.” *


“I feel like [my university] expects international students to do so many things on their own that they never had to do before, like applying to health insurance, renting a sharehouse, etc. I wish they could help us do these things more.”


An overwhelming amount of students express a desire for support systems and a place to express their worries, however there is still the rare comment saying otherwise.


“People should have the strength to deal with their problems on their own.”*


(*translated from Japanese)



Why did you decide to do this?

Khaled presenting his research to staff at his university

At first, Khaled tell us his goal was simply to start a discussion among his peers. However, he knew that he needed a platform and hard evidence to get people’s attention before he could be heard. Using his unique position as a foreign student in a Japanese university, he was able to use his connections to get as many people as possible to complete the survey. He handed out QR codes to students in his classes and asked them to take the time to fill out the survey, he connected with international students and students in clubs and asked his Japanese and international friends to spread and share the survey as well.


The end goal?


Change.