5 Tips for Studying Abroad with a Mental Illness

I have struggled with on and off again depression for quite some time. For some, that could be enough of a deterrent to stop one from studying abroad, but not me. Studying abroad had been a dream of mine since childhood, so when I found out it was a real opportunity I jumped on it.

Once it was official, I needed to set myself up for the best experience possible. The last thing I wanted to do was have any down spells while I’m thousands of miles away from home and to be unprepared. So I decided before I left that I needed to create a strategic plan and have an arsenal of tools to help prepare myself for any difficulties I may face once abroad.

For my study abroad experience I chose to study in Viterbo, Italy during the summer of my junior year.  I chose Viterbo because it offered my dream course, travel photography! I am a journalism major with a minor in both photography and philosophy so the thought of getting to study my passion in Italy, somewhere I’ve always dreamed of traveling to, excited me beyond belief!

I am very happy to say that I did not encounter any problems with anxiety or depression while abroad! The only problem I personally faced was some moderate homesickness but that’s totally normal, After my positive experience, I want to encourage other students who may suffer from a mental illness to not let that deter them from studying abroad.

I compiled a list of all the main things that helped me prepare for my trip abroad and hopefully, they can help you too! So I present to you, my biggest tips on how to set yourself up for a great time abroad.

Know Yourself 

When deciding when and where to study abroad take everything into consideration; yourself, your finances, everything.

  • How long would you like to be gone and where do you think would be the best fit for you?
  • Which country do you think would be not only fun but provide you with an easier adjustment compared to others?
  • What classes are offered?
  • Which classes would be the most exciting and useful for you and your major?

Ask yourselves these kinds of questions when deciding. Many study abroad programs have a variety of sessions to choose from including USAC. USAC provides summer and winter sessions, full semester, and even full year sessions. If you don’t think you could do a full semester look into a summer or winter session. I chose to study abroad during the summer for a couple of reasons. The main reason I chose a summer session was because I knew it was the perfect length of time for me as I personally felt a full semester abroad was too long for me. I also saved some money by going a shorter amount of time. As much as I love to travel, a summer session was perfect for me. By the time I left, I was happily drained and ready to go home.

Research

After you’ve selected your destination do some research on the country before you travel. Learn some basic phrases in the local language as well as what kinds of cultural differences to expect once you arrive. Doing this will help you have an easier adjustment into the new culture as you will already have some prior knowledge on what to expect.

I highly recommend reading USAC’s study abroad toolkit, which will be provided in your gateway account. Make sure to research what kind of weather to expect when in your new country as well. I recommend going to YouTube for research as well. There are so many great videos on how to pack, what kinds of things to expect once abroad, what kinds of fun things you can do once you arrive, etc. It was a great resource tool for me and really helped hype me up!

Learn Coping Techniques

Before you leave it’s important to prepare yourself for any difficulties you may face, especially if you’ve previously dealt with depression or anxiety. It’s important to remember that bad days can and do happen and there’s always a chance you will experience culture shock once you arrive. That is okay and totally normal to experience!

Learn some coping/grounding techniques or activities that can help ease you through these bad days. Grounding techniques are especially useful for those who deal with anxiety. There are a ton of techniques and activities out there from exercise, reading, yoga, meditation, etc. A simple google search is all you need to start learning about all the different coping mechanisms and activities out there!

If you see a therapist make sure to talk to them about techniques that could help you once abroad and keep their number or email on hand. My favorite thing to do if I was feeling a little drained or homesick was to take a walk outside while listening to music. Doing this allowed me to relax, take in my surroundings, and re-charge my excitement and gratefulness to be abroad. I also recommend looking into mindfulness meditation, it is life changing. If you are on any medication make sure to stay consistent with taking it and bring enough to last your entire session.

Reach Out and Stay Connected

Make sure to stay connected to those back home and keep them updated. Staying connected will help you feel at ease knowing everyone you love is just a phone call away.

If you’re feeling down don’t be afraid to reach out to the other students in your program or talk to your USAC advisors. USAC is there to help you and chances are other students are feeling the same way as you.

When I was feeling a little down talking to some of the other students helped me a lot. I learned many were feeling the same way I was! Remember that you and the other students are all in the same boat, you are all in this together.

Journal

Last but not least, journaling. This is a classic piece of advice that can be found in every self-help article ever, but journaling is especially great when studying abroad! Document all the adventures that come your way.  It will absolutely be worth it in the end when you can look back and relive all the amazing things you did when abroad. Document everything from the people to the food, to a detailed description of the room you stay in.

Being able to look through my journal and relive my experiences makes me overjoyed. Doing this helps keeps those memories fresh and vivid. As time goes on our memories fade, but journaling helps keeps those moments we love fresh in our minds, letting us really re-live them over and over again. Even today, I love ending my day by thumbing through my journal. It sends me to bed with a smile on my face every time.

I am so fortunate to say that I had the time of my life while abroad! Getting to study abroad in such a small community like Viterbo really changed me for the better. I got to fully immerse myself in Italian culture and share my experiences and passion with some of the most amazing people from all over the world. The other students and I became a family and I will cherish those moments I had with them for the rest of my life.

USAC provided me with such a wonderful opportunity and helped provide me with every tool I’d ever need to have a successful time abroad. They even included a ton of fun field trips that allowed us visit places like Rome where we got to see the Colosseum, Spoleto Falls, Civita di Bagnoregio, Pitigliano, Siena and so many more places! Some of the other students and I even got to take outside adventures to places like Barcelona, Spain and Skopelos Island, Greece. Best summer ever!

I really made the most out of my time abroad and you can too. I want others to be able to experience what I did. Mental illness is a serious matter and to many the idea of studying abroad when worried about their mental health can be extremely daunting and can deter students from pursuing time abroad. As someone who has openly struggled with depression, I want others to know that if I can do it you can too! Mental illness sucks, but we should never let it stop us from trying to live our best lives. Studying abroad was an absolutely amazing experience. If you have the opportunity to study abroad I highly recommend you do, you won’t regret it! With a little preparation you can do anything you put your mind to.

Carley Olson is a University of Nevada, Reno student. She studied abroad in Viterbo, Italy in Summer 2018.

2 thoughts on “5 Tips for Studying Abroad with a Mental Illness”

  1. I love that you prepared ahead of time; very smart. Your tips are wonderful for anyone currently experiencing mental illness, but they’re also great for anyone who experiences it unexpectedly abroad. While I was abroad, my boyfriend of 6 years cheated on me (booo) & I broke up with him. This was like, 2 or 3 weeks into my 11 week trip. It was rough BUT the USAC staff, the professors, my fellow students, and my host family were WONDERFUL (“Reach out & stay connected”)— so even with all that sadness, it was the happiest & most fun 11 weeks of my life. Thank you for your discussion in this important area!!

  2. Hi Loran,
    Thanks so much for sharing your story, and we’re so glad that you found support abroad and still had a great experience. Cheers!

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