Resource Series 1: Tips for Handling Mental Illness Abroad

Thoughts from Lyndsi Jones, Peer Advisor

Who out there struggles with some kind of mental health condition? Have you thought about studying abroad? Are you worried that studying abroad would be too stressful, or too hard to manage along with your illness?

What many students don’t realize is that over 20% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 are struggling with a mental illness of some kind, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. You are not alone, and there are resources out there for you, too—whether you’re in America, or your dream country.

Personally, I was very nervous about studying abroad for five months. I have a long history with depression and anxiety, and even though I spent most of my life learning how to deal with those things, it was daunting to think about being away from my comfort zone. I wouldn’t be able to call my mom in the middle of the night, schedule an appointment with my therapist, or drive home for the weekend if I was overwhelmed by work. Studying abroad meant depending on myself, and trusting that I knew enough about my own mental health and self-care.

There are a few things you can do to prepare yourself, in all stages of your study abroad experience.

  • Research which countries have the best mental health services. You may have to compromise on location if it means better resources for your specific concerns. A few places to start are below.
  • If you take medication, know how much you can bring with you before going, and plan for that. You don’t want to get abroad and realize you’re going to run out of your medication during your stay, with no plan to get a refill. Likewise, you don’t want to wait until the last minute to request your medication and realize you can’t take enough with you.
    • Side-note: Some medications that are legal here may be illegal in other countries. If that’s the case for you, talk to your doctor about what a suitable alternative may be.
  • Be honest with the Study Abroad Office on your medical self-evaluation. I know you may feel uncomfortable sharing the details of your mental illness, but it’s important for your study abroad advisor to know. The information you provide is kept confidential. Part of their job is to help prepare you to go abroad, but they can only help you with things they know about.
  • Don’t overload yourself at your school or program abroad. The amount of classes you can handle at Towson may not be the same amount you can handle abroad. While you’re abroad, you will be dealing with your mental health as well as experiencing culture shock, so leave room for yourself to adjust to that (you can always take on more classes/clubs/extracurriculars later, if you feel you can).
    • Side-note: If you’re abroad for a semester, you will need to maintain full-time status (12 U.S. credits).
  • Once at your school or program, explore the specific mental health resources they offer. Be aware of your options, in case you have an emergency. I can only speak from my experience here, but the school I attended had a text-line that was available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was like an on-campus job, in a way; students applied for the opportunity, trained, and had schedules to ensure that at least one person was available at every hour in case of a mental health emergency.
  • Confide in your friends! Chances are, someone in your circle at home knows your concerns about studying abroad with a mental illness. Plan a Skype date with them to talk about things if you need to. You may even make friends while you’re abroad that you feel you can confide in—I did, and one of them was feeling the same way I was.
    • Side-note: One of the main lessons I learned abroad is that there are people everywhere. I was so afraid of leaving my people. Breaking news: everywhere you go in the world, there will be people. They’re probably nice people. Will they be different than you? Maybe. But don’t close yourself off or miss out on an opportunity because you’re afraid you’ll be alone. You won’t be alone.
  • Leave some time for a little extra self-care when you come home. I know, I know—everyone warns you that coming home is the hardest part. What you might not be prepared for, though, is it being true. I hadn’t gone to therapy regularly in three years, but when I came home, I almost immediately needed to start going every week. Be mindful of the fact that you may need even more time to adjust back home than you did when you went abroad.

 

Studying abroad is such a valuable experience. No matter who you are, where you go, or how long you go for, you will come home a little different (hopefully, a little better). Don’t let fear of your mental illness keep you state-side.

If you have any questions or concerns, you can contact our office at (410) 704-2451, or email studyabroad@towson.edu and peeradvisor@towson.edu. We are located in PY 408, open Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm.

You should also go to Towson’s Counseling Center with concerns about your mental health abroad. They can be reached at (410) 704-2512, or counseling@towson.edu. They are located on the second floor of the Health & Counseling Center at Ward and West.

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