Am I Homesick or Depressed?

Editors Note: Studying abroad is an incredible but challenging experience for participants.  It compels us to confront our values, our beliefs and the way we live our lives.  API knows that having a community of support is invaluable when making major life transitions.

Participants are asked to share any medical conditions that may affect the study abroad experience prior to their departure; in doing so, API has the ability to advise them about the resources (or lack thereof) that are available on-site and provide extra assistance/guidance as needed.  API’s on-site coordinators and directors are available to support students who face medical or emergency situations 24/7, and they have established networks of on-site counselors, doctors, and hospitals that can be used by students. To ensure access to ongoing care, our health insurance plan provides limited coverage for treatment of pre-existing conditions, including up to $1,500 of coverage for pre-existing mental health conditions.  This coverage means that students who wish to continue to seek professional support while abroad have the means to do so.

This post comes from student blogger, Sandra Mercer. Sandra is from Westfield State University and is an Elementary Education Major currently studying in Galway, Ireland Sandra has been sharing stories from her mental health journey abroad that you can read here.

“Am I Homesick or Depressed?”

This is a question I’ve asked myself quite often since I landed on the Isle a few months ago. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever really figure it out completely, but I’ve certainly been trying.

Much of my young adulthood was spent being acutely aware of my depression. I knew that every moment of sadness, however brief, had the potential to spiral into a particularly devastating depressive episode. I’m on edge for the next breakdown almost consistently. This, in turn, only worsens the symptoms brought on by my anxiety disorder.

The fear of being sad: the terribly ironic memoir of my life.

Once I came to Ireland, I knew that homesickness was inevitable. The longest I’ve ever been away from home is six weeks, and I was only across the state at college. I was so close to home I could taste it, and I could hop in my car and onto the Pike and be home before I’d listened to every song on my favorite Spotify playlist.

Flying across the ocean and living in a completely different country surrounded by completely different people and going to a completely different school is just a little bit different than that; however, in almost the same light, I’m across the world studying something I love while surrounded by some of the most wonderful people and trying new things every day. Being sad just doesn’t seem probable, right?

Wrong.

Like I briefly mentioned in my last post, mental illness doesn’t go away because you fly far from home. Depression doesn’t take a break when you study abroad. Anxiety doesn’t cease because you spent the night dancing and laughing with new friends in the best pub in town. Depression doesn’t abandon ship because you successfully navigated campus figured out where that one auditorium is for the first time all semester. Anxiety doesn’t desert you because you finally spoke in that lecture with the annoying kid in the front row who constantly contradicts and challenges the professor (and got a thumbs up from the professor at the end, nbd). Depression doesn’t evaporate because the singing donut man at the Saturday market gave you an extra cinnamon donut in my bag. Depression and anxiety are still there because they live inside of you, where they can nestle comfortably until they decide to rear their ugly heads.

Frustrating? Certainly. Unbearable? Sometimes. Manageable? Absolutely.

So, how the hell can I tell the difference between being depressed and being homesick?

The answer is simple: I don’t know.

When I start to feel bad, in any sense, I try to figure out why I’m feeling that way. First, figuring out if it’s an anxiety or depression-stemmed emotion is essential. Oftentimes it’s an anxiety-stemmed sadness; I start to feel down, and though initially it may seem like the start of a depressive episode, it’s really just because I’m overwhelmed or panicked and I’m having a hard time alleviating that initial feeling. Other times, it’s an depression-stemmed emotion; I’m feeling down for seemingly no reason at all, with no anxiety-inducing feelings behind it.

Once I’ve determined which of the two, I need to ask myself a few more questions.

Did something external–a fight with a friend, getting left out of an activity, a reminder of the looming deadlines of college work, an embarrassing moment, getting lost on campus–happen to make me feel this way? Would a call or text home make me feel better? Do I want to go home because I miss my family and friends and FOMO is feeling unbearable, or because I genuinely am not enjoying myself here? What can I do (that I enjoy doing) that might make me feel better? Do I just need a break? Would lying down and relaxing before I continue to spiral help?

Asking myself these questions, and ultimately answering them, helps to narrow down my feelings rather than letting the overwhelming sense of sadness blanket over me. Taking each uncomfortable/unwanted emotion as it comes and doing a breakdown of how it came to be has become an essential (albeit annoying) part of my “Abroad Journey” as I like to call it. Though an often time-consuming and draining part of the journey, I believe it’s necessary. Breaking down how and why my more difficult emotions have come on allows me to really sit back and determine if it’s a feeling I can mend relatively quickly or one that I need to do a little more soul-searching and self-care to alleviate.

As much as I love living in a different country and have started planning how/when I can move back (sorry Mom), I do miss home. I miss my friends at my home university and in my hometown; I miss my parents (especially their cooking) and sharing a room with my younger sister (never thought I’d say that);  I miss driving around aimlessly with music blasting; I miss the comfort of my own bed and the nine (yes, nine) pillows piled high on top of it; I miss ranch dressing, BagelWorld, Kraft mac n cheese, and saying “wicked” without stares; and I miss that unique sense of comfort home provides.

Studying abroad is about getting outside of that comfort zone, though, and that’s been an adjustment. I think that’s a lot of what my “Abroad Journey” has been about: adjustments. Though often difficult and usually filled with uncertainty, adjustments are necessary to get myself where I want and need to be. I think that over the past four months I’ve definitely achieved more than I thought was possible, and persevered through more than I thought I could handle. It hasn’t been easy, but it has always been worth it.

Until next time, friends. Cheers!

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