University of Wisconsin–Madison

Handling Mental Illness While Abroad

It’s nearing the end of my stay in Bologna. It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but my attentions have been elsewhere. I have finals this coming week and then some time to pack up before I ship out. I plan to write another blog before I leave with some parting thoughts on my experience, but for this one, I wanted to really focus on the topic of dealing with mental illness while studying abroad.

A couple weeks ago, I was really struggling with some pre-exam anxiety. After reading some thoroughly unhelpful articles online, it became abundantly clear to me just how little some outsiders understand about mental illness. This has never really surprised me, as many people with mental illness eventually run into people who feel that they are stupid or lazy or just plain not trying hard enough to snap out of whatever they’re experiencing. I guess this time, it bothered me because these were articles specifically written with the aim of helping students deal with depression and anxiety abroad, but, although well-intentioned, they were clearly not written from the perspective of a person who had ever experienced those things on a chronic, diagnosable level. From the perspective of a person with those issues, it was a bit disheartening.

So, in the spirit of Bender Bending Rodriguez, I decided to write my own article.

If I can give any piece of advice to a person who has a mental illness and wants to study abroad it is to be completely transparent in the application process and to inform the people you’ll be working with overseas.

There is a stigma–as I realized again reading through those advice columns–but if you cannot stomach writing your illnesses on a form or telling your study abroad advisor about it, it will be that much harder for you to seek help when abroad.

I’ve heard stories and read articles about students with mental illness going abroad, never having informed the program directors, the advisors at their home school, or even putting a note on the paperwork in the numerous slots that specifically ask if s/he has an illness that could affect his/her stay.

I’m going to be blunt, but that is, without a doubt, one of the worst things a person in that situation can possibly do. That is an unsmart thing. Double plus unsmart. Maybe they’re afraid their home school won’t let them go or think that they’ll be a liability, but it’s even more of a liability if they go and don’t tell anyone. That’s downright dangerous. And not a cool, edgy, Darkwing Duck sort of dangerous. A serious danger that could have very real consequences and could have easily been prevented or remedied more quickly if honesty had been at the forefront.

Informing your advisors at home and the administrators abroad will better allow you to find the help you need.

I cannot speak for all individuals with mental illness and I strongly encourage these individuals to consult their counselors or mental health professional before making the decision to go. (It doesn’t hurt to look into stocking up on meds–should you take them–or, worst case, seeing if you can for sure get a script abroad.) One thing to understand is, yes, if you have anxiety or depression, these things may be exacerbated by the already stressful experience of going to a foreign country to study, but having a mental illness should not be seen as a death sentence.

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You know what’s depressing?

Depression.

You know what’s even more depressing?

The prospect that depression alone should bar your opportunity to embrace life-changing learning experiences.

It breaks my heart to read articles about students who studied abroad, but did not have the resources or did not feel comfortable approaching the staff and things just got too bad too quickly for them, and it infuriates me to read the news articles who blame the schools for “letting” the student study abroad, “even though” they knew about the student’s illness.

No. No. That is a massive truckload of No.

A bit of a segue, but I think and speak largely in analogies and metaphor. Reading those articles reminded me of a ridiculous story I read in Seventeen when I was in high school about a young lady who had been dating a bisexual guy who ended up cheating on her with another dude. The article was the gal’s reflections on how she should’ve known he would do such a thing, given the nature of his preferences. Now, I get pretty enraged by beauty and teen magazines, but this was the pinnacle of rage from those sources. Anyway, when I read articles demonizing schools for their irresponsibility and negligence of letting students with mental illness study abroad, I am transported back to that rage.

That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.

I’m not going to lie, tackling a bout of depression or anxiety in one’s comfort zone is, at best, a Kerri Strug. You’re hurting and you know that as soon as school or work is done for the day, you’re going to curl up into a ball and hide under your covers, but it’s not curl-up-and-hide o’clock yet. So, you limp out there and give it all you’ve got and sometimes you manage to pull it off and stick the landing. Like a boss.

Studying abroad is a bit like Dancing with the Stars. Sure, you may have studied the language, you may get by well, but chances are, you’re not a native speaker. But that’s why you’re there. You’re not a professional dancer. Maybe you’ll never dance as well as your partner who has been cutting rugs since age four, but your intention is just to improve. When you study abroad, your aim is not to compete with your partner–your environment. Your environment may present you with challenges, but when you study abroad, your aim is to better yourself. You are competing with you, with your past ability. (I wish I had realized that sooner.)

Now, say you’re dealing with a flareup of symptoms while abroad. It’s like being on Dancing with the Stars, but in this scenario, you twist your ankle or drop a vase on your foot in your dressing room right before the big dance, but you go out there and Kerri Strug it. You decide to dance anyway. Maybe you can’t move exactly like you could during rehearsal, and in the moment you may be obsessed with your shortcomings, after the event anyone who knew what you were dealing with will be so proud of you. And you’ll be proud of you.

I’ve met a number of students with some form of anxiety in this program and I never would have known if they hadn’t told me. Naturally, I may have no idea what’s been going on between their ears or what personal struggles and challenges they’ve faced, but they seem to be having a lovely time and relishing the experience.

I’ll say it again for the people in the back: having a mental illness should not be seen as a death sentence.

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If you want to study abroad, I think you should absolutely look into it. It’s a wonderful experience, but be aware of the challenges you will be facing, be open with your advisors, and make sure that you advocate for yourself and put your health first.