Updated: Feb 4
Study abroad can change your life, usually for the better, but for people with mental illness, it can be a bit more tough. However, if one takes care of their mental health, it can turn into a healing process. Whether you are traveling far or near, be sure to follow the following steps to take care of your mental health.
1. Acceptance of Your Mental Illness
After entering college, I learned the hard way that my mental illnesses were a part of me and they would come with me even if I moved schools, states, or countries. Realizing and accepting that they affect my everyday life is something I am still trying to fully embrace, but it was the first and most important step to managing my mental health while abroad. Many people believe that if you move settings, your mental illnesses will not move with you, but more often than not, they do. This then led to an honest conversation with myself about my mental health.
2. Be Honest with Yourself
I had the opportunity to study abroad in the second semester of my sophomore year, but after having multiple crises, I decided to postpone my abroad studies. It was hard to admit that I was not healthy enough, but I am glad I did because it allowed me to prepare even more. That being said, it is important to have an honest conversation with yourself when deciding whether or not you are in a good place to study abroad.
While going abroad can be extremely fun and rewarding, it will not be if your mental health is not in a healthy state. Take time to self-reflect and truly do what is best for you. Studying abroad can be triggering because you are in a new setting and far away from your support system. If you believe you will not be able to handle it, then ask yourself: how can I get to a healthy enough state to be able to handle such drastic change?
For me, much of my “preparation” consisted of healing as much as possible in order to ensure that a change would not trigger a crisis. I went to therapy weekly and put in the most amount of work I had ever put throughout my 6 years of therapy. Knowing I had to be healthy by a specific deadline, pushed me and motivated me like no other. So if you find yourself feeling uneasy about going abroad because of your mental state, rather than allowing it to bring you down, use it as motivation to heal while you are in your home country surrounded by your support system.
4. Stay in Therapy
Even if I progressed a lot in therapy while in the U.S., I still wanted to continue my healing process. In my opinion, it is crucial to continue therapy when you are abroad, even if you do not think you will need it.
Here are the following steps I recommend you take to ensure you have the opportunity to attend therapy while abroad. First, talk to your current therapist and ask them if they are willing/able to do teletherapy. State laws get very complicated, so more often than not the answer will be no.However, If they are not able to provide you with services, contact your home insurance to see if they cover therapy services in another country.
Next, contact your abroad program and ask them what the protocol is to receive therapy in the country you are studying in. If your current insurance covers therapy, then they can assist you with finding an English speaking therapist. If it does not, then most programs will provide you with additional health insurance. I am fortunate enough to be studying abroad in Denmark where, as a resident, I have free health care and am granted 6 free therapy sessions. However, I would be needing more than that, so I took additional measures. I needed to get a letter from my current provider stating my diagnosis and the importance of weekly therapy.
After that, I would need to make my first therapy appointment in Denmark once I arrived. I
would advise you to make your first therapy appointment as soon as possible. It is always better to be prepared than to wait until you “need it.” Additionally, getting therapy services in another country can take a long time and some programs might even have deadlines. Therefore, I recommend you start this process as early as possible.
5. Continue Medication
It is never a smart idea to simply stop medication, especially as you are going through a change as drastic as moving to a new country. Therefore, you should do your best to continue your medication. I had been taking the current medication I was on for about 6 months and felt stable, so I did not feel the need to seek a psychiatrist while abroad. Rather, I just brought all of my medication with me. To get approval from the Danish government, they required a letter from my psychiatrist stating the name of the medication, the dose, the amount, and the reason for intake. If you, on the other hand, feel the need to seek a psychiatrist while abroad, you can contact your abroad program. Once again, this process might be time consuming so it is important to allow enough time for everything to be processed.
6. Maintain a Support System
Having a support system is always essential, but even more so when you are divided by thousands of miles. Before leaving for Copenhagen, I made a schedule of when I was going to be calling my parents and friends by taking note of the time change and our availabilities. Additionally, do not be afraid to form a new support system in your abroad country.
In particular, as a person of color, I have relied a lot on the other POC students in my program. They help me miss home a little less and have validated my struggles as a POC student in a predominantly white country. While I may not see them after we leave Copenhagen, I could not imagine studying abroad without them, so make sure to step out of your shell at your own pace to form bonds with those around you.
7. Stop and Take it All In
As a low-income student who is in Europe for the first time, I wanted to do as much as possible and travel to as many countries as possible, making it difficult to genuinely appreciate what was around me. Remember that you cannot do everything, so balancing your time is extremely important. Include some self-care time in your new schedule that allows you to reflect and genuinely be able to take it all in. Whether this reflection takes the form of journaling or daily gratitude exercises or prayer, it is crucial to slow down every once in a while and to not get caught up in the heat of the moment. Reflection has not only helped my mental health but actually improved it during my stay in Copenhagen.
8. Self-Care and Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Last but not least, create healthy habits of practicing self-care and positive coping mechanisms. I have brought some old self-care routines, but my new environment has also allowed me to incorporate new ones into my life. For example, I try to go for walks every day, whether that is by taking a new route home or walking in the countryside on sunny days, or walking through the city’s many parks and gardens. A self-care routine that I had not been able to try before was implementing meaningful conversations into my friendships. Meaningful conversations are some of the only scientifically proven things that lead to genuine happiness. I found a friend whom I take the metro with every morning. Our passions are very similar, so on the metro ride to and from school, we talk about everything, from the effect of society on mental health to interesting class readings. Additionally, when meeting new Danes, I try to have meaningful conversations with them about our different cultures, which has allowed me to learn so much about theirs and gain lots of Danish friends. Of course, not everyone gets as much fulfillment from deep conversations the way I do, so figure what makes you happy and do more of it. Remember that you are never too busy to take care of yourself because failing to do so can lead you to be unable to do other things. Therefore, always put time aside for yourself.
While taking care of your mental health while abroad can be time-consuming and require plenty of planning, it is extremely worth it. I have been able to grow as a person and benefit greatly from my study abroad experience more than I would have ever imagined because of the steps I took before and after arriving in Copenhagen.
AYANA and Studying Abroad
The current law states that when receiving therapy in another country or state, both places need to be taken into consideration. While we would love to provide therapy for anyone who travels abroad, many logistics need to be considered. Our priority is the safety and protection of our users and therapists. While the system is flawed and obsolete, the industry is evolving which will make services much more accessible because we feel that therapy is a right and not a privilege.