12th April 2017

Anxious abroad? You’re not alone

If you’re worried that your year abroad might not be all plain sailing, we offer some advice on managing your mental health and making the most of your time away

It’s safe to say that if you’re doing a year abroad at university people will have repeatedly told you that it will be the ‘best year of your life’. It’s about time we admitted that that’s not always the case. For people living with mental health difficulties, the carefree, happy-go-lucky attitude associated with travelling and living abroad can often be hard to come by.

In a 2016 YouGov survey, more than a quarter of British students (27%) reported having a mental health difficulty. This is important, because it’s very easy to think you’re in this alone, a feeling exacerbated when abroad as you might feel you are ‘burdening’ new friends with your struggles. However, learning both to look after yourself, plan ahead, and build a support group around you are key to enjoying the ‘ups’ of your year abroad despite any potential ‘downs’.

It is possible to have a wonderful year abroad while dealing with the difficult and destabilising effects of your mental health difficulties — I did, and so can you. Here are some tips that really helped me out.

Get organised

A year abroad is a massive upheaval, and while that can be very exciting, it can also induce a lot of stress in anyone, particularly those with anxiety. During my semester studying in France, I got so sick of the endless paperwork and running around after signatures that I felt like hiding under my duvet for a week. However, when I returned in my second semester, I’d organised lots of this in advance — taking several copies of all my personal documents, planning my paperwork deadlines and researching. Needless to say, while French administration is enough to turn even the most zen folk into screaming banshees, it’s a lot easier if you’ve prepped in advance.

Photo: Gemma Sowerby

Prescription planning

As you can’t always send medication abroad, I relied on meeting up with family and friends in order to get my medication — it wasn’t a suitable or dependable method and I went without it a couple of times, as it wasn’t even available in France. I would recommend thoroughly researching whether your prescription is available at your destination, as well as asking your doctor in the UK for a certain amount of medication in advance, if possible. If you’re prepared, then you’ve already succeeded — it will make your time abroad so much easier.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Ceridwen, a University of Edinburgh student who studied in Lyon during her year abroad, says: “Anxiety and depression made my YA so much harder to cope with. I’d get anxious about ringing people in French to set up flat viewings, and I found things like setting up a bank account really difficult. Depression also makes leaving the house to do these tasks even harder.”

She recommends seeking advice from your home university well in advance, making sure they are aware of your conditions, and trying to make use of counseling resources before you set sail. I really benefitted from time with a psychologist before my year abroad, so can vouch for how talking to someone about your worries can help more than you’d ever believe. Even just talking to some trusted friends or family members can have a really positive effect: try your best not to keep it bottled up.

Me time

This seems obvious — everyone knows the importance of self-care and the way it can help ease your sadness and low self-esteem. But it shouldn’t be all about escaping your situation and wishing you were somewhere else, which can sometimes happen if you always resort to Skyping family and friends or watching the same films over and over again. It’s important to find ways to combine self-care with learning to love living in a new place: try out a new local restaurant or café every week, go to the cinema and watch the latest foreign masterpiece, or visit the countryside or the coast and take in the whole region (while topping up your tan!)

Photo: Gemma Sowerby

Treat yo’ self!

Despite the difficulties posed by anxiety and depression, Ceridwen still had many highlights, such as “travelling to different places in France and trying new things — like skiing for my first time in the Alps and enjoying how cheap the wine is in France!” I personally loved visiting a new museum or exhibition every weekend in Paris, and spent every Sunday morning treating myself at the Bastille market — fresh fruit and veg at Poundland prices, delicious coffee, fresh bread, and whatever my friends and I fancied for brunch that weekend.

It may seem daunting right now, but if you stay organised and plan ahead, rely on those around you for support when the going gets tough, and remember to look after yourself from time to time, you will certainly have a year to remember — for all the right reasons.

For information on how to organise all of the above, speak to your university’s residence abroad team, and check out the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s website where you can browse up-to-date information on visas, accommodation, laws, and medical and travel advice for hundreds of countries around the world. For the latest advice and up-to-date information from across the globe, follow @FCOtravel on Facebook and Twitter to always be in the know — for me, there’s nothing more reassuring!

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