Challenges with psychological health do not have to prevent you from studying overseas, just be prepared
Shortly before I left to study abroad, a good friend of mine sent me the “Romano Tours” Saturday Night Live skit. Adam Sandler plays Joe Romano, a tour guide who is tired of people expecting that a vacation will solve all their life problems.
“Remember,” Romano said. “You’re still going to be you on vacation. If you are sad where you are, and then you get on a plane to Italy, the you in Italy will be the same sad you from before, just in a new place.”
My friend and I laughed with all the hilarity that comedy elicits when it touches a nerve. “You’ll be the same sad you, but in Paris,” she said, smiling.
Her words and support meant a lot since she had studied abroad as an undergraduate several years prior, and like me, struggles with mental illness.
If you have a mental illness at home, you will also have one abroad. Please, do not let that stop you from going, unless you have reason to believe you would be putting your health and safety in danger. Since college is already stressful, if you are able to make it through a semester at Lewis & Clark then you will probably be able to make it through a semester abroad. Congratulations! You have passed the first test.
On the other hand, you might be one of those lucky people who says that they are okay. It is sweet of you to think that. I hope it is true. It is still a good idea to prepare for unexpected changes in your mental health since the disruptions of going abroad can bring up or exacerbate issues you did not realize you had.
Do Your Research
Where do you want to study, and which programs are you considering applying for? Programs vary greatly in the amount of support they offer students. Some can connect you with therapists in your host country. In other programs, you are on your own.
You will also want to take into account the prevalent views on mental illness in the region you are studying in. If you go to Canada, Australia, New Zealand or western Europe, your host country will view mental illness in a similar way to the United States. In much of the world, the topic is more or less taboo, although there is always variation in the way that individual people approach it. If you plan on living with a host family, talk with the Overseas and Off-Campus Programs office to strategize how you can best communicate your situation.
If you are on medication, it is imperative that you make sure you can legally bring your medications with you. Some countries regulate prescription drugs with a high potential for abuse, such as benzodiazepines and amphetamines, much more strictly than the U.S. You may also need special permission from your doctor in order to acquire several months’ worth of medications at one time. The last thing you want is to go into withdrawal when you are far from home.
If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor and/or therapist before you go so that you can work out a game plan. You can also reach out to alumni of the program to see what strategies worked for people in a similar situation.
Talk to your friends and family as well to make sure you can stay in touch with them. Will you use WhatsApp, Instagram, video calls or phone calls to reach them? Do you want the predictability of a scheduled weekly call, or the flexibility of reaching out as needed?
Depending on the program, you may be able to choose between a variety of housing options. Host families, shared student housing and individual apartments all have different pros and cons for different students. For example, if you want the cultural and linguistic immersion of living with a host family, but need to spend a lot of time alone in order to recharge, you might need to make some compromises in order for the situation to work for everyone.
Studying abroad comes with high highs and low lows. It is important to build up a routine and not lose sight of self care. Try not to rely too much on your support network at home so that you can build a new one in your host country.
Do your absolute best to be as engaged as possible, whatever that looks like for you. Remember that a lot of the people around you are pretending to be coping well, but are actually not — just like in college back home. There is considerable pressure to have an amazing time. I cannot say how many people I saw trying their absolute best to be “Emily in Paris.”
Struggling is normal and everyone does it their own way. Do not beat yourself up. I studied abroad in the fall of 2021, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic all the students in my program were placed in individual student apartments. I knew beforehand that the isolation would negatively affect my mental health, and it did. There were a few days when I did not step foot out of my apartment due to depression, and that is okay – I have days like that in Portland, too.
Remember your goals and let those guide you. Reach out to your support network. It will be okay.
Mental health issues can be terribly isolating and leave you feeling trapped in your own mind and body. Living abroad, even for the short span of a semester, makes your world bigger. Same sad you, but in a wild, strange and beautiful place.