10 Ways to Manage Your Mental Health Overseas

by January 20, 2017
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You’ve heard it before – on a blog claiming that your twenties are your golden years to travel or your friend raving about her semester of a lifetime overseas. Well, they’re not kidding. Traveling or living abroad allows you to get to know yourself while being forced to confront preconceived notions of other cultures. You can learn a new cooking style, trek through unbelievable landscapes and make friends from all over the world.

However, this isn’t always a simple decision. Many people want to travel or live abroad, but the obstacles of doing so when you have a mental illness can be daunting – and understandably so. Even without the burden of mental illness, being separated from your previous support system, lacking familiarity or combating a language barrier is guaranteed to take a toll on anyone’s mental well-being.

“Whether you’re going abroad for a week, a semester, or as a permanent move, it can feel overwhelming. But it’s a good scary. It’s the kind of scary that challenges your resilience and shows you that you’re stronger than you believed,” says Maddie Ipsen, a current student at Beloit College who recently returned from a semester in Copenhagen. Not only does Maddie study clinical psychology, but mental health was a high priority for her while abroad because she suffers from anxiety.

In universities, more and more students with mental health disabilities are opting to participate in a study abroad program. According to the National Survey on Student Engagement in 2014, the number of U.S. college students with mental health disabilities who studied abroad and the number of non-disabled students were nearly identical. Increased access to technology is certainly a contributing factor to this rise, along with the stigma being lifted around conversations regarding mental health. This has resulted in a greater number of schools providing students planning to study abroad with resources for sustained mental wellness. Unfortunately, though, this isn’t always the case.

“Of course [my depression] wasn’t caused by my being in Italy, but the isolation I felt there certainly didn’t help. I don’t even know if there were resources I could have sought out,” says Clara Ross. Clara studied abroad in Bolzano, a small town in northern Italy, during her third year at the University of Washington. “I’m sure the attitude towards mental health varies widely country to country, but even from afar I probably could have gotten more help.”

Regardless of if you’re trying to draw out a plan before you leave or you’re already abroad and need to get through the day – I’ve outlined some actions you can take to help wrangle your mental health when you’re overseas.

1. Expect to Feel Different
Some people go abroad and expect to adapt quickly to their new culture, but the reality is that you probably won’t – and that’s completely normal. Homesickness and feeling frustrated or angry at times will happen, especially if you’ve never been away from your home before. Cultural differences that seem exciting at first can also be distressing and lead to feelings of misunderstanding, loneliness, and culture shock. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.

2. Reach Out for Resources
“I’ve heard stories that some universities handle mental health better than others, but you’ll never know until you reach out,” Maddie says. And what does she recommend doing if that doesn’t work? Keep searching. “There are resources everywhere, but sometimes it may be difficult to notice them. For example, I volunteered at a social psychiatry cafe to work with individuals who had been diagnosed with mental illness. On the outside, it looked like any other cafe you would see on the street, but it had resources for those that needed them.”

3. Plan Your Medication
If you’re currently taking medication, you’ll need to set a plan for how you’ll fill your prescription as well as research information on carrying prescription medication abroad. Embassy.org is a great resource to check to see if your prescriptions and over-the-counter medications are permitted in your destination countries. Don’t plan on sending medications from home because it’ll require copious amounts of customs paperwork and chances are high that it’ll be delayed or not make it at all.

4. Get Insurance that Covers Mental Wellness
Look into mental health services that are available and make any insurance decisions based on what will be covered. If you’re going to a country where English isn’t the native language, GoodTherapy.org can help you identify English-speaking health providers available. You should also consider learning the vocabulary associated with your condition or bringing a translated copy of your medical records and release forms.

5. Set Up Therapy Appointments In Advance
Online chat functions like Skype and Whatsapp have made it easier than ever to keep in touch with people worldwide, and chances are that this includes your therapist. Think about pre-paying for sessions in case you need an emergency session or call while abroad. “Both times I went abroad I continued to correspond with my therapist. in 2010 it was mostly emailing, but in 2014 I had some Skyping,” Clara explains, referring to a previous experience in Argentina.

6. Find a Tribe
Surrounding yourself with a support system where you feel valued and safe is absolutely essential. This is easier said than done, but remember that this group isn’t limited to age or programs. “My host family and my friends from both universities where I studied were my support systems,” says Maddie. “Take, for example, my friends at the music academy. I wasn’t particularly close with any of them, but I knew that they wanted me there and that was enough for me. At the end of my classes, I could come home and have a ‘hyggeligt’ (cozy) night with my host family, or go out with my friends from my classes.”

7. Don’t Compare Timelines
“The rise of social media and the exhibitionism that comes along with it really skews your perceptions of your own experience and that of others,” explains Clara. “Facebook and Instagram showed photos of others who were studying abroad going on amazing adventures and really painted a picture of them always having fun. I, on the other hand, was watching Netflix alone in my bedroom, wondering where my classic “study abroad experience” was while all these other people were having the time of their lives. I realize now that these people probably had just as many boring days that I did, and I did go on some pretty amazing adventures of my own.”

8. Keep a Journal
Daily journaling has been shown to cultivate happiness, plus it can help you recall these memories at a later time. “Writing out my experiences helped me clear my mind so that I could see things from a different perspective,” Maddie says.

9. Avoid Doing Nothing
It’s a classic piece of advice, but timeless because it’s true: Avoid doing nothing as much as possible. “Even if it means going on a walk down the street to get some coffee and coming back 15 minutes later, getting outside is so important,” says Clara. “Simply focusing on being open to meeting people and doing new experiences will help with any feelings of isolation. I think having an ‘end-date’ as a student both helped and hindered me. On the one hand, I knew I would be going home soon which was nice when I was feeling particularly homesick or depressed. On the other, it didn’t motivate me to do much if I was simply biding my time until I flew home.”

10. Leave If You Need To
Finally, if you feel that your health or safety is slipping beyond your control, give yourself an outlet and permission to leave. Your health is more important than anything else.

When you’re considering whether or not to go abroad, remember that many of the challenges you could face overseas will seem minor compared to the positive, transformative experiences that you’ll have. “It can be super hard at the beginning, but ignore that voice in your head that’s telling you to run away and hide where you know it’s safe,” Maddie says. “The four months I spent in Denmark were the best months of my life. Of course they were scary, but now I look back and realize that they made me a better person than I was before I left.”

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