Tough situations come up abroad, but knowing that there are study abroad staff, faculty and other exchange students around can be a big comfort in knowing you don’t have to figure them out alone. Nonetheless, you need to do your homework beforehand.
Here are 15 ways to get mentally and emotionally prepared when you know you’ll soon be far from home and your usual support systems.
- Who is available? Find out about mental health resources abroad before you go, even if you think that you won’t be affected emotionally by going to another country. Your exchange program, insurance provider, or local embassy can connect you with therapists abroad or give you professional referrals.
- What is it like abroad? Seek out international mental health-related groups that have chapters in many countries (e.g. Befrienders Network, World Federation for Mental Health, World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry). They can tell you about attitudes, laws, and support services that exist in their country.
- Rely on your neighbors: Connect with supportive peers in your time zone; whether you travel with friends or not, bonds can form quickly by spending so much time with other exchange participants, and it can also be a point of stress if you don’t get along. If you are staying with a family or roommate in the host country, communicate with them honestly about your needs before you arrive.
- Stay in touch with home: Maintain connections with your family, friends, or therapists back home, made easier these days with Skype, chat, and cell phones. Discuss before you go how (communications can have privacy concerns or be unreliable in some countries still) and how often you will stay in touch; pre-pay therapists if needed.
- Who has your back? Find someone on the program whom you can trust to understand your triggers, and teach that person how to support you if he/she sees changes in your health or behaviors.
- Get yourself out there: Attend social settings where you can meet locals or other travelers, and consult with peers with similar mental health histories to avoid isolation, share strategies, and meet others who relate to what you are experiencing.
- Find the right fit: Make sure the program staff or faculty are responsive and receptive to you in the planning process. This may indicate their reaction to your issues once you are overseas.
- Gone but not far: Exchange or disability/counseling staff back home are a resource if you are having problems with getting what you need from local staff or faculty.
- Take time for yourself: Maintain some of the coping strategies (e.g. journaling, yoga, reduced course loads) that help you at home to deal with fatigue, concentration, or stress, even if it means taking some down time away from the many activities abroad.
- Know what to say: Learn vocabulary in the local language that is associated with your feelings or what you need (or don’t need) from others. Bring, or be able to access, a copy of your medical records and release forms (translated if needed).
- Ask early for what you need: Request any accommodations or services that you need well in advance. Some can even be done without revealing your diagnosis. For example, you could just say, “Because I’m not a morning person, I need to arrange my schedule such that my courses don’t begin before 10 a.m.”
- Avoid common mistakes: Check out issues related to any medications abroad: availability, legality, coverage of costs, back-up supply, time zone changes, interaction with other medications.
- Read the fine print: Research health and travel insurance plans that will cover you abroad; be aware of restrictions and exclusions, as mental health coverage and related issues could be affected by this small print. You may also need to pay upfront and be reimbursed on return home.
- Know how to stay safe: Ask the exchange program about: If I’m experiencing an emergency, what is the process for me to get help abroad? Does the program have enough staff to assist a student with an emergency? Do I need to sign a medical release?
- Give yourself options: Purchase an open-ended flight ticket or cancellation protection insurance to provide flexibility if you do have to take time away from a program or return early; also review early return policies with your program and how it affects your costs and credits (if studying abroad).
See the Related Resources for more specifics on traveling with medications, staying safe, and more.