The first time I went abroad for a long time as a student, I was in isolation.
Yeah, it wasn’t the happiest time of my life.
I certainly don’t regret it, but there are a lot of bad memories associated with it.
And I didn’t fully admit it until I got back. I certainly also didn’t admit that there were things I could have done differently to potentially improve the situation.
I didn’t really fit in with the other students and my physical disability presented obstacles that I didn’t expect. I couldn’t get out of the neighborhood where I lived to do anything, including take a taxi, because of the huge hills in every direction!
I often did not know how to ask for accommodations at the time that might have facilitated my participation. I felt like I had to live with it. And I didn’t know how to talk about the negative emotions brought on by isolation.
There’s so much to think about when going abroad, from packing to planning the itinerary and booking everything. But how much time do we spend thinking about our mental health?
What does “sanity” even mean?
Mental health can refer to diagnosed conditions like bipolar or general anxiety disorder, depression or schizophrenia, but it can also mean overall mental health. Mental health is something that affects absolutely everyone.
Let’s face it, it’s hard to talk about mental health. It’s also hard to talk about situations we’ve never been in. No wonder the association of the two is not often talked about!
Sometimes it’s hard to anticipate how we’re going to handle a new situation or what kind of problems might arise.
When we go abroad we are often so excited and full of anticipation for all the exciting things to come that we don’t think to anticipate the negative feelings that are part of the human experience let alone make a plan to do facing these feelings. .
When these negative things happen, we tend not to talk about them. We tend to just say “that’s life”. But it’s part of life that we need to talk about in order to find new ways to deal with these situations and therefore better manage our long-term mental health. The new situations that you can and will experience abroad will sometimes be very difficult.
If you have a mental health issue and are going abroad, now is not the time to stop taking medication.
Whatever your mental health situation, you need to have a plan for communicating because if you can’t find a way to communicate your true feelings about your real experiences, it can lead to deeper, darker feelings. No, I’m not necessarily talking about suicidal thoughts. I didn’t have those kinds of thoughts. But I had a lot of dark thoughts about feeling alone and no one understanding how frustrating it was to navigate my new surroundings.
If I had thought,What exactly am I going to do if I can’t do it myself? before leaving home, this would have led me to speak with a study abroad advisor. I could have asked, Who do I contact if I need help with accessibility issues that may arise?
Ironically, looking back, I know who I could have talked to. But I held myself back from having this conversation for fear that my problems were somehow out of the norm for someone to help me. That I was doing my duty somehow keeping my mouth shut.
It doesn’t matter if you think no one else struggles with this thing. Asking for help is completely acceptable. Maybe a solution can’t be found, but chances are it is.
So what specific steps can you take to better plan for your overall mental health?
For study abroad, it is a good idea to establish links between the leaders of the program on site / the visiting institution and for the advisers to indicate to the students before departure who is the main contact on site . Additionally, it is important to remind students to check in on their emotions and sanity.
For any long-term stay abroad, it is important for close family and friends to know that a range of emotions are normal and it is good to check everything out.
You may also want to think about how to incorporate these thoughts and feelings into how you document your experience. I talked more about documenting and how it still impacts me when I’m at home here.
As difficult as it may be, you’ll set yourself up for long-term success by communicating all of your feelings and making a plan to do so ahead of time. Negative feelings can pass quickly or take hold and be difficult to overcome if you don’t talk about them. And it’s much harder to come up with any kind of plan when your emotions are all over the place and you already feel overwhelmed.
Whether you are planning an experience abroad or know someone who takes care of your mental health by communicating all the feelings that come from the experience, this should be a priority!