Funeral home workers worry about mental health of young people as repatriations to India increase

WARNING: This story contains harrowing details

A Toronto funeral home is drawing attention to the mental health issues faced by international students as it increasingly repatriates the remains of young men and women to India.

Funeral workers at the Lotus Funeral and Cremation Center in Etobicoke, Ont., say they believe some of these deaths are the result of suicides. Students and advocates say they are alike concerned about the mental health of international students and suicide rates, especially as India’s international student population grows, and say the issue demands action.

The numbers are obscure. A student activist says it’s problematic that federal statistics don’t track deaths among international students because otherwise there’s no way to find a solution.

Funeral workers at the Lotus Funeral and Cremation Center in Etobicoke, Ont., say they are concerned about signs of suicide in the growing number of dead men and women it repatriates to India. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

For years Lotus has been repatriating the remains of Indian nationals from across Canada at the request of the Consulate General of India and other members of the diaspora.

I used to repatriate no more than two a month – some of them students and some who had obtained work visas. But since last year, that number has more than doubled, says the funeral home.

Kamal Bhardwaj stands in front of urns and candles in the funeral home's sorting room.
Chairman and owner Kamal Bhardwaj says the funeral home has seen a year-on-year increase in the number of bodies, particularly young ones, that it is repatriating to India. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

“We’re about four to five [repatriations] a month now,” said chairman and owner Kamal Bhardwaj. Some months, even seven. Funeral homes traveled to PEI, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Quebec to collect bodies.

Here is the breakdown of these repatriations, which the funeral home says were mainly young people:

  • 2018: 8 remain.
  • 2019: 16 remain.
  • 2020: 12 remain.
  • 2021: 11 left.
  • 2022: 33 remain.

Funeral home workers say they are concerned about some of the signs they are seeing on bodies.

“It’s more visual. When they come in, how we see it and sometimes there are ligature marks on the neck,” Bhardwaj said. “So that would be something we think is a suicide.”

While the ligature marks could be caused by other incidents, funeral directors say that in other cases, workers see signs of drowning or drug overdose, which could also indicate suicide.

Funeral workers could not provide specific causes of death due to privacy concerns, but they told CBC News that natural causes are usually associated with only one or two deaths per month among students and other young Indians.

The remainder includes accidents, suicides, accidental drug overdoses, or other causes. In some cases, determining the cause of death takes time, as coroners’ investigations can take weeks or months to confirm, according to funeral home officials.

Harminder Hamsi stands in front of a funeral casket in the sorting room of the Lotus Funeral and Cremation Center.
Funeral director Harminder Hansi says that, as a father, he struggles when he sees the apparent causes of death in some of the young people the home sends back to India. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

Funeral director Harminder Hansi says the home is on track to surpass last year’s repatriation numbers.

“I’m exhausted,” he said. “As a parent, when I see how they died, the cause of death, I get upset. [did] this happened, why did we… as a community, why [can’t we] stop this?”

Last year, there were also many more students coming to Canada from India – 319,000, up from 216,500 in 2021 – according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). But that 47% increase was far outweighed by the increase in bodies handled by Lotus.

According to IRCC data, the number of Indian students with valid study permits has been increasing:

  • 2018: 171,505.
  • 2019: 218,540.
  • 2020: 179,510.
  • 2021: 216,500.
  • 2022: 319,000.

IRCC said it does not track the remains of foreign nationals sent back to their home countries. Statistics Canada says that while it collects information on deaths, there is not enough information to determine whether the deceased was an international student.

The Consulate General of India (CGI) in Toronto – which predominantly deals with students in Ontario – says that in 2021, 22 of those registered with the consulate died out of the 173,935 in the province who had valid study permits. Four of them were suicides.

Amanjit Kahlon is sitting in a chair with his laptop placed on top of a table, typing away.
Amanjit Kahlon of Punjabi Community Health Services says homesickness has a lot to do with student stress. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

The numbers of students and consulate suicides also increased in 2022 – when 25 out of 236,565 died and seven were confirmed as suicides – although as a percentage of the student population the change seems proportionate.

The consulate could not provide CBC News with segregated data before 2021.

So far this year, consulate officials say eight other students died in March. Two of them were confirmed as suicides.

Jaspreet Singh, founder of the International Sikh Students Association and a former international student himself, says if governments aren’t tracking international student deaths, it makes it hard for authorities to see the crisis he and others in the community see on a daily basis. .

“In Canada, everything is pretty systematic,” he said. “We work with numbers, we always try to analyze numbers, we always try to project numbers into the future. [international students]nothing is happening.”

“They are being neglected and only the students are suffering.”

Singh says the pressures build for international students over time — from applying for study permit extensions, to paying fees, to working while maintaining high grades and waiting for immigration pathways.

When these students fail to meet the “expectations of their families and friends…from a South Asian perspective, it is a matter of life and death when they feel they have failed.” Singh said.

Homesickness is “a lot” of the problem, said Amanjit Kahlon, community development manager for Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS), which helps members of the South Asian community access mental health supports. Over the years, he saw more people needing access to these supports.

“A lot of these people come from large families, where someone checks in on them, asking how their day was. When they come here, a lot of them are on their own. They’re in a new space, but they don’t have that connection or that social support.”

Kahlon says the organization has had to step in in the past to support students’ mental health, even sending some back to India through the Rapid Response, Saving Lives program. Helped send nine students home before their mental health deteriorated, at the request of students and their families.

“We followed up with most of them once they got back and the families are very grateful that they were able to understand what their son was going through,” Kahlon said.

The organization no longer receives provincial funding for the Rapid Response Saving Lives program. Kahlon says PCHS case managers can have up to 100 cases at a time.

“If we’re seeing an increase in the size of the international student population, then there needs to be an increase in funding for programs that support them as well,” he said.

Josh Sankarlal, board member of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), says institutions have historically struggled to address student mental health, but the mental health of international students is especially nuanced.

“I think a student’s culture of origin can really affect how comfortable they are accessing mental health services,” he said.

OUSA recommended that institutions and governments adopt a community approach. This includes working with service providers so students can access mental health support in places of cultural significance.

Recently, Colleges Ontario also released a new international standard of practice, which will become effective in June 2024 for its 23 signatory colleges.

One of the standards includes “supports and services to promote the well-being and safety of students”. Specifically, colleges will have to provide information to students about how to access medical and mental health services through college or community and public services. This will include culturally responsive services where available.

“One student death by suicide is too many.” said Sankarlal. “What students really want is for their mental health to be addressed with the same urgency as their physical health.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

Funeral home workers worry about mental health of young people as repatriations to India increase

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