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Mind the Gap: Mental Wellness During My Gap Year Abroad

Zach sits on the ground with Ugandan child with a disability
Zach sits on the ground with Ugandan child with a disability

Reflecting on his journeys to Rwanda, Argentina, Peru, China and Uganda, a world-traveler named Zach explains how he managed the cultural differences related to social anxiety and depression while abroad.

It’s a really big transition to go from high school to college, and I really needed a year off from academics to go out and see the world. In high school or college, you are expected to do what people tell you to do; I was suffocating in high school and just needed to get away.

With a gap year it was more about advocating for myself on what I wanted to do based on my needs and what I felt comfortable with. I enjoyed the independence I got during my gap year, and by doing volunteer work, I was accomplishing something and being helpful to those who needed it.

There was some concern that I would have a panic attack abroad, and I’d be around people who didn’t know what it’s like. Sometimes I can feel the attacks coming, so I just remove myself from wherever I am and take a break. I did have panic attacks abroad, but I was able to deal with them better because of my medications.

Accepting Cultural Differences

It was difficult, especially in China, in terms of my depression and anxiety. The people I met could be a little bit nosy; it wasn’t considered as rude to say “Oh you’re taking medication. Why are you taking it?” It seemed a bit invasive at times.

In Africa they sometimes walked over to hug me and feel my hair, and I’m really not used to that. In fact, I’m personally very uncomfortable with having strangers come up to me and touch me.

To cope with it, I had to push myself to understand that in that culture they were not trying to be offensive or bring me down – there’s just a big cultural difference that they aren’t familiar with.

I would explain personal space and cultural differences to the younger kids, and my tolerance with little kids got much better too.

And there were times when I was so overwhelmed by the differences between American culture and other countries’ cultures that I just needed to take time away from my volunteer work. Journaling about what my experiences were like also helped.

Staying Connected, Not Isolated

I corresponded with my parents every week or so. In Uganda it was a little difficult for me because there weren’t any therapists, and I was living in a rural area where they didn’t understand social anxiety or clinical depression. I got a cell phone there to talk to people back home. I just think it’s good to keep in touch – not every single day but just once in a while to check in.

In Uganda when I talked to people back home it was difficult for them to understand the lifestyle. I could describe it in detail, but it’s completely different from actually experiencing it for yourself.

In China there was an English-speaking, American a therapist specifically for expats. That definitely helped. The therapist had been in China for a long time, so she understood what it was like for foreigners. Even if she hadn’t been a professional, it’s just nice to find someone else who can share and understand your situation. You can basically step back and laugh about it.

In Argentina I met someone in the volunteer house who also had social anxiety, and she expressed how hard it was to get used to things abroad. It was nice to know there was someone else who sort of knows what I was going through.

What she suggested to me was that people are understanding if you are upfront with them. If I were to say “I know sometimes it seems that I’m a little down; in the future if I seem tired, I just need to be left alone for a little bit.” Usually people would understand and there was no need to get into any explanations about “I have depression; I have anxiety…”

Laying Foundations for Lifelong Changes

I was terrified when I first started; I think the gap year did help me become more independent and self-advocate more. I was thrust into a situation where I couldn’t rely on my parents or teachers or anyone. While abroad, I learned to get used to change.

I would recommend it to anyone who is struggling in high school before they go off to college. I think it would definitely help any prospective student boost their understanding of the world and build up their self-esteem. 

I’m pretty lucky to have the life that I have in America. Meeting people who live without electricity, plumbing, who have been through much worse things than I’ve had to deal with, greatly humbled me and made me a lot more grateful for what I have.

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