When you're preparing to study abroad you generally hear all sorts of warnings about things like culture shock, reverse culture shock, and homesickness as common causes of depression and anxiety during and after your trip. These warnings are all relevant and you should definitely take them into account if you start to feel uneasy or have trouble coping while abroad. However, those of us with preexisting mental health issues need to be vigilant to make the most of our study abroad opportunities and not have them morph into prolonged bouts of suffering.
When it comes to study abroad, the list of things that exacerbated my anxiety were endless. The threat of the unknown, limited access to friends and family, limited ability to communicate, a new and unfamiliar environment, a new schedule...everything was different from the life I had established at my home university, so it took a lot of preparation and foresight to even get myself to a place where I truly felt comfortable enough to enjoy the majority of trip.
NOTE: These tips are based on my personal experiences and should not be taken as professional or official medical advice!
Here are some things to consider as you prepare for your journey abroad:
1. Do you have specific coping mechanisms?
Do you do yoga? Do you pray? Do you have specific morning and night routine? A comfort item? Don't stop using those just because you're abroad. Although being abroad is the perfect time to try new things, that doesn't mean you should necessarily give up on tried and true methods of making your days tolerable. Before you even leave, consider how you will transfer your coping mechanisms to your new temporary home. It really makes a difference.
2. Monitor your medications.
If you take medications, do NOT stop taking them unless you are advised to do so by your psychiatrist. Also, do some research on your host country. For example, in my host country, Japan, every single substance I was prescribed was illegal according to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Furthermore, to bring large amounts of prescribed drugs into Japan (even if they are allowed), you need permission from the Japanese consulate. Be aware of the laws of your host country and communicate them with your psychiatrist. It's also best to start this process early, just in case you have to switch medications; under supervision of course.
3. Will you need access to therapy while abroad?
If so, communicate this with your psychologist as well as your study abroad advisor. At my university, my advisor told me about a service that would connect me to services in Japan that could meet my needs. If you aren't comfortable sharing your situation with your advisor, do some research yourself! Research psychologists where you'll be living or studying; preferably with someone that can communicate in whatever language you need. It is better to know that these services are available near you than to not be prepared because they don't sound particularly appealing.
Once you’ve prepared everything important before going abroad, it’s important to establish a routine in your host country when classes begin. Doing so will help ease any anxieties or concerns you might have about living overseas. Here are some tips for staying on top of your responsibilities:
1. Draw a map to all important places and keep it with you.
When I first got to Japan, I had no wifi. Sometimes wifi isn’t arranged for a few days, depending on the country you go to, and what access you have as a temporary resident in a homestay, dorm or apartment. I kept a note with the steps to get from my dorm to the train station and from the train station to my university on my phone. It helps to write down landmarks too, especially if you have to walk far distances. But in all honesty, I only started doing that after I got lost literally 15 blocks away from my dorm in the wee hours of the morning. Don't be like me! The less you feel lost the less you'll have the opportunity to panic.
2. Keep track of classroom policies regarding attendance.
How many absences are you allowed? How many tardies are you allowed? I will admit that I am someone with a history of missing class because I am feeling overwhelmed or simply can't make myself move that day. Knowing my absence and tardy limit helped assuage my guilt in some cases where I really, really needed the day off, and in other cases compelled me to go to class, because it wasn't worth it to waste a tardy or absence when I didn't feel that bad.
3. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Most host universities have a center for exchange students. Don't be afraid to go to them. Their job is to help you! If your host university assigns you a student helper like mine did, use this to your advantage and stay in touch. The student assigned to me helped me get from the airport to my dorm and was very nice. I kind of regret not reaching out to her more after the first few days.
4. Stay in touch with family and friends back home.
Facebook, Skype, and WhatsApp are just a few examples of how technology today can you help stay connected to everyone back home. If there are other students from your home university in the country with you, try to reach out to them. It can be daunting if you don't already know them, but there is safety in numbers and they probably have to do all of the tedious things that you have to do too.
5. Take care of yourself.
I wish I had had a comprehensive list of things to consider before I went abroad, but a lot of the things that I mentioned didn't occur to me until after the fact. Don't let mental health issues dampen your experience.
Hopefully, these tips shed some light on how I managed to have an incredible time abroad, regardless of my mental health issues. I was able to overcome some of my biggest challenges, and still enjoy my time living and studying abroad. Again, this is not professional advice, but rather some insight that I wanted to share. Make sure you always speak with the people you trust most to ensure that you have both a memorable, and safe time abroad.