How to manage mental illness while studying abroad

It’s a challenge, but the reward is worth it

Until this January, I had never travelled out of the country (hell, I hadn’t even left the East Coast). But a J-Term in the Dominican Republic with 16 amazing young women and my favorite professor changed that. Of course, my experience is personal to me, especially because I was studying a 3-credit course over 10 days in a developing country.

I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for six years, so dealing with mental health was nothing new for me. But studying abroad presents a unique set of challenges that are entirely different from the UVA environment. As I boarded my plane, anxious thoughts about the next week and a half flooded my mind.

Travelling and studying abroad with a mental illness produces a conflicting internal debate. I realized I was so incredibly privileged to be afforded this opportunity, and I wanted to squeeze every possible experience I could out of my brief time abroad.

Yet the reality of living with depression and anxiety makes this awfully difficult. Despite the beautifully shining sun, bright blue waters, and warm sand, a dark cloud can hang over you that urges withdrawal from your surroundings.

I wanted nothing more than to be present in the moment when my classmates and professor discussed topics I am passionate about. Yet the familiar hands of apathy found their way to me, and I found myself zoning out of conversations I would normally be eagerly participating in.

Perhaps the worst part is knowing that studying abroad is such an amazing and unique experience, and wanting to enjoy it as much as possible, yet being unable to. Despite this, I still deliberately participated in any activity I could. After all, how many times in your life will you be able to zip line in a beautiful foreign country with people who are passionate about the same things as you? (Spoiler alert: not very many.)

Understand that my professor, classmates, and the study abroad program were unconsciously or consciously supportive of my struggle – but support doesn’t diminish or vanquish depression.

Despite the challenges this experience might pose, I cannot recommend highly enough studying abroad. Multicultural awareness has inherent and intrinsic value, and exposure to other cultures expands our understanding of ourselves and the world.

Though studying abroad with depression can be difficult, there are steps you can take to make it easier.

Be prepared and organized

It makes sense that if you have all your materials (for the flights, course, personal) you would be (slightly) less anxious about your trip.

Keep a journal

Journaling, generally speaking, is a great way to keep yourself centered. But keeping a journal while abroad can be incredibly beneficial to remind you of good memories and ground you.

Be present

Staying in the moment and being present can make your experience so much better and help it feel more ‘real’. Sometimes depression can cast a veil over your surroundings and make you feel like you aren’t truly experiencing what’s around you. Mindfulness can combat this and bring you back to the moment.

Just do it

As Shia LaBeouf would advise, if a fun experience presents itself, just do it – or at least try. I know the idea of going to your room and sleeping or isolating yourself seems quite appealing, but the more you put yourself out there, the more likely you will remember you trip fondly.

If you feel as though you might suffer from depression, anxiety, or another detriment to your mental health, get support for free on February 18th & 19th at Mental Wellness Screening Day hosted by CAPS. 

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