A World Apart

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Written by  August 30, 2016

When you’re alone and far from home, mental health issues can be magnified. How to cope during a semester abroad.

After 14 hours of travel, I unpack my suitcase in my new dorm, sit on my unmade bed and cry. “I want to go home,” I think. But home is still four months away.

Until that moment, I’d been counting down the days to studying abroad; London had been a dream since childhood. But I have social anxiety and depression, so when the UK finally became a reality, my excitement melted into dread and fear.

From struggling with culture shock to making new friends, studying abroad is challenging for the average student—but for those who suffer from mental illness, it can be that much harder. However, it is possible to enjoy yourself and grow from the experience. Here’s how:

Build a strong social network

Anxiety is caused by our fight or flight reaction. That’s why the best way to find friends it to practice—the more comfortable you are with something, the less your body will react.

If that sounds daunting, focus on times that you’ve been successful in social situations. “You’ve done it before and you can do it again,” says Erin Goedegebuure, a professor of psychology at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.

Pushing yourself to socialize will help you to establish a support system of trusted friends—and one of the easiest ways to do this is by taking full advantage of programs organized by your host school. Other exchange students, who are experiencing similar emotions, often attend the events. Personally, I met my best friend on a university-sponsored Thames River boat trip, and we were able to build a strong connection.

“The more you know about the culture that you will be immersed in, the less isolated you will feel from it.”

Ben Eisenhower, an undergraduate student who studied abroad in Prague, has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, depression and gender dysphoria. For Eisenhower, it was people at home who provided the best support.

“Try to have someone—whether in person or through technology—that you know you like to talk to and can vent to if need be,” he suggests. Though the WiFi may be weak, hearing your mom’s voice or seeing your best friend after a few days makes a difference.

Visit your doctor before you depart

If you are taking medications such as antidepressants, make an appointment with your family doctor or counsellor to discuss your trip. Since some countries don’t prescribe certain medications, you’ll likely need to pack enough for the duration of your stay. Have a letter from your doctor ready to show at arrival, citing why you are carrying a large quantity.

Mobility International USA, an organization that empowers people with disabilities to go abroad, suggests that if you regularly take medication, don’t stop taking it, even if you are feeling happy or good. Moods have a tendency to cycle from high to low points, particularly while studying abroad.

Talk it out with a trained professional

If your day-to-day functioning is being affected, it may be time to seek the help of a professional. If you have a therapist at home, schedule Skype sessions. Health insurance and medical systems differ by country, so this will also ensure that your visits are covered.

Some universities also have free counselling services, so look into what your what your home university and overseas institution offer. However, if you can’t find anyone to speak to comfortably due to a language barrier, reach out to the people who are in charge of your exchange program. “It’s kind of a Band-Aid for a problem that you can treat better when you get back home,” says Goedegebuure.

Learn to navigate a new city—and culture

Be prepared as you set out to explore your new community. “Know where you’re going, have directions before you go out, or have a map of the city with you,” advises Eisenhower. Knowing how to read a map is key if you don’t have Internet access or if your phone dies. If you do get lost, just ask for help; most people are more than happy to give directions.

While finding your way around a new city is one challenge, navigating a new culture is another one altogether. Undoubtedly, culture shock will hit you at some point and mental illness may make you more susceptible to its effects or increase their intensity.

Jeffrey Newton, a graduate of Northeastern University who studied abroad in Nice, France for a semester, recommends mitigating the effects of culture shock by learning about your host country prior to departure. “The more you know about the culture that you will be immersed in, the less isolated you will feel from it,” he says.

Finding a country with a similar culture to your own is also an option. I chose to study abroad in an English-speaking country with similar cultural practices partially for this reason.

Be prepared for worst-case scenarios

Studying abroad can exacerbate feelings of anxiety, which means that you may experience new symptoms, such as panic attacks. Goedegebuure suggests finding a quiet spot, sitting down and breathing until you get to the other side. Ask a friend for help and remember that it will pass.

If you are feeling suicidal, talk to someone—find a teacher, advisor or counsellor at your university. If you reach out, people will help you.

Finally, if a whole semester away is overwhelming, home is just a plane ride away. It may even be helpful to purchase an open-ended flight home before you depart. Above all, remember that you have value, people who love you and you deserve to be happy. You can get through this.

Now, when I look back on my four months in England, I remember the history I learned, the culture I discovered, and the friendships that helped me through. Most of all, I learned that you’re not alone—no matter where you are in the world.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Verge. 

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Published in Study Abroad
Ann Marley

Ann Marley is student at Susquehanna University studying theatre and journalism. She is a produced playwright, a director, and a dramaturge. As a journalist, she has had over 35 news articles and feature articles published in Johnstown Magazine and The Crusader, a weekly newspaper.

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