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Successful Study Abroad with a Mental Health Condition

Line of exchange participants practicing sitting meditation
Line of exchange participants practicing sitting meditation

16.8% of U.S. college students with mental health disabilities have studied abroad by their senior year – close to the same percentage (17.1%) as non-disabled students*.

At a recent study abroad conference over 250 professionals chose to attend our panel session on mental health. Why was there so much interest?

People attended our session largely to find out how to avert or deal with a crisis. After we did our best to relieve some of their uncertainty and shared suggestions for improving the design and preparations of study abroad programs, we had a chance to end with this message:

For every student with a mental health-related disability who experiences a crisis abroad, many more will succeed.

When a student discloses a mental health condition, remembering this fact will help keep education abroad professionals’ perspective in balance. We cannot assume that cultural adjustments will have a negative effect. Many students realize that their coping mechanisms are universal and portable when studying abroad and that supports if needed can be established.

An exchange participant who went to Japan said, “I learned that I can step out of my comfort zone and be fine with it. When traveling, things are not always as bad as they might seem to be at first. I ended up handling certain Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) situations, where I was able to not let myself be bothered by or let my OCD take over the situation. I learned to ignore and let things go that are not important.”

A college student, who has an anxiety disability, says it best in this 3 minute NPR audio spot (see related links for full story):

“If you had told me freshman year that I would be in Africa now, I wouldn’t have believed you. I wouldn’t have thought I could deal with the sinks, few and far between….Or the last-minute change of plans. And definitely not the possibilities of theft, car accidents and rare tropical diseases — these things could actually happen to me any day, and yet I’m happy, calm and confident.”

The study abroad field will always have students, with and without disabilities, that experience crisis abroad, but as a field we need to remember to celebrate how many students are successful, and ask them to tell their stories.


*According to the National Survey on Student Engagement (2014)

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