mental health while studying abroad
Studying abroad can be dangerous for your mental health if you don't know what to look for. (Image via Tour Radar)
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mental health while studying abroad

Studying abroad is a privilege, but your mental health should be your highest priority.

Studying abroad should be the adventure of a lifetime. Precious few chances come along to go see the world — not just for a visit but to be immersed in it. It’s a privilege to travel, explore a culture and learn a new language. It’s a dream come true for many, and it usually takes a lot of friend and family support through finances and encouragement to make the trip happen.

That’s why it can be so disappointing when your mental health while studying abroad gets in the way of you enjoying the trip.

It can be difficult adjusting to a new country. It’s natural and healthy to be wary when entering a new place, but it can go from caution to fear in such an unfamiliar environment, especially if it’s your first time abroad or if you’re alone.

This fear might start right away, or it might come after a brief “honeymoon phase,” where everything about the country seems adventurous and fun. The other stages are withdrawal, where the excitement wears off; adjustment, where you’ve adapted to the new environment; and enthusiasm, where you’re contentedly immersed in the culture.

“Education Abroad,” a University of South Florida Study Abroad guide, explains these stages. The guide also lists some things to look for regarding your mental health while studying abroad: chronic physical symptoms (e.g., headache, stomach ache); sadness; difficulty studying or working; frequent crying, nervousness; relationship stress; feeling sick often; irritability/anger/frustration; withdrawal from others; extreme homesickness; intense feelings of loyalty to native culture; over- or under-eating; boredom; excessive sleep; and poor academic performance.

These symptoms of culture shock could last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. This is completely normal for a study abroad experience. The key to tackling these is just to push through — immerse yourself in the culture, get to know the locals, learn the gestures, languages and public transportation schedules.

It will get easier every time you go outside if you’re actively learning to deal with it. It’s not normal, however, to experience these symptoms longer than a month or two. If you do, you might be developing some form of depression or anxiety.

mental health while studying abroad
Many college students get the opportunity to travel across the globe to study and work. (Image via WYSTC)

When I went to study abroad in London, I had no honeymoon phase. It was my first time leaving the United States. Everyone else had a buddy to fly with, but I took a cheap standby ticket. I had no idea I couldn’t sleep on planes.

I spent three days in lonely layovers and in the sky before I finally flew into Heathrow — and I hadn’t slept more than an hour the entire time. Most people can’t read signs in a foreign country because it’s in another language. I was so sleep deprived I couldn’t read them because the letters kept blurring and dancing along the walls.

Fortunately, the subway system in England — the tube — is so clear-cut that I still managed to get on and off at the right stops.

But reading my tiny, blurry map while loaded with heavy suitcases in the drizzling streets of Kensington was impossible. I didn’t think I’d ever find my dormitory. I found a bobby, one of the British police officers, walking down the street and stopped him for help.

His excited, “Oh, are you American?!” boomed in my ears. He spoke with me for a while about his various trips to the United States. When I asked him about the map, he told me he hadn’t a clue where the spot on the map was. Disappointed, I walked through the streets for what seemed like a frozen eternity before I found it. And they wouldn’t let me check in for four hours.

Needless to say, the experience didn’t start off on the right foot. Culture shock set in right away.

But after months of grueling schoolwork, I realized that something in my mind had changed. It wasn’t just a lack of adjustment to a new culture; the culture was fine. I liked the architecture, theatre, history, fun accents and so-easy-I-could-do-it-half-dead public transportation. The multicultural nature of London was fascinating, and the museums were all free!

The other students from my school seemed to be having a great time, but I wanted to go home more than anything. What was wrong with me?

mental health while studying abroad
Issues with mental health often go unnoticed and can lead to lasting impressions. (Image via Program Business)

I developed an adjustment disorder. My dad, a clinical psychologist, diagnosed me over video chat. More than a regular cultural shock, adjustment disorder (or situational depression) is sort of like a miniature depression/anxiety that comes from being unable to adjust to a new situation. It can happen when you move, when a loved one dies, when you switch jobs or any other big life change.

Tearfulness, worry, fear, sadness, frustration, anger, not wanting to go out and lying to everyone that I was “doing great!” became standard. Outward, I became irritable and harsh, though I tried hard to hide it. I felt like I should have been grateful, and I felt guilty for being miserable, which didn’t help at all.

Once I spoke with my dad, I decided to let my trip advisor know that I had developed a minor mental disorder and that my mental health while studying abroad was not where it should have been. I mustered my courage. I told myself I wouldn’t cry. And I went to speak with her about it.

“You know,” she said, “we don’t really believe in mental illness. Have you tried going outside? And you can’t use this as an excuse to miss any more assignments.” She and her husband, who were the professors for the trip, had assigned three papers on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” due on the same day. I had forgotten about the third the week before. It was the only assignment I missed the entire trip.

The invalidation sent me spiraling deeper into anxiety. It felt like I was constantly being electrified and weigh down, chest compressed and head buzzing with repetitive, anxious thoughts. I spoke to no one about it until the last few weeks of studying abroad. It took months for me to even look up to see the stars.

When I moved back home, it all went away within weeks. Now, I find myself wanting to visit again for the things I really enjoyed about it. But as I reflect on how I handled developing changes in my mental health while studying abroad, there are a few things that I wish I could have told myself.

I wish I had stayed more in contact with my family. My dad is a therapist for a reason; he could have helped me so much more if I’d asked him to. Also, you should talk to the other students. If the professor or trip advisor is unwilling to help, you still need to get help.

You’re not being selfish or a burden to ask someone to take you to the hospital if you break your leg. Likewise, you’re not being selfish to ask someone to help you with a mental illness. If they can’t help you themselves, maybe they can help you get in contact with a local therapist. It’s not shameful. It’s necessary.

Do more activities that you enjoyed back home. Writing stories calmed me down significantly when my symptoms worsened and getting involved in a worship team at a local church helped me feel far more welcome and loved.

You also need to be more open to going out with those around you. If you’re invited, say yes! Expand your support group by making friends. Learn about the culture; just because you’re hurting, it doesn’t mean the place is hostile. And it isn’t going to help you to stay in your room all day, even if the weather is freezing.

If you’re struggling with maintaining mental health while studying abroad, please know that you’re not alone. Try to seek help. My mental illness was relatively minor, and even I should have done more to care for myself.

The place you’re in is well worth exploring. It is a privilege to study abroad, and you should be able to enjoy it. Equip yourself with the people and tools you need to have the best trip possible.

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