Love Your Experience: A Conversation on Mental Health Abroad

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we’ve featured blog entries from two API alumni, who collaboratively produced content about a cause that is near to their hearts and their study abroad experiences.  Today, we chat with Julie Pleshe, API Global Leader and Cadiz, Spain alumna, and Jennifer Teeter, API Global Leader and Grenoble, France alumna, about their passion for international education and mental health awareness. 

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API: Why is the discussion of mental health and study abroad important to you?

Julie: When I studied abroad, I didn’t think I could have possibly been more prepared. I had it all: my passport and visa tucked away in my hidden travel neck pouch, TSA approved luggage locks, outlet converters, travel-sized toiletries, a journal – even my trusty ukulele! But the one thing I wasn’t prepared for was anxiety. I had never experienced any form of a mental health condition before, and to say it threw me for a loop would be an understatement. For this reason, I think it is essential that mental health is a part of the study abroad conversation. As a study abroad alumni, I view my mental health struggle as not only an opportunity to connect with aspiring study abroad students, but an obligation to use my experience to better prepare students that will go after me.

Jennifer: As a student who was worried that suffering from depression would prevent me from studying abroad, I think it’s important for others to know that just because you have this mental health condition, doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on life-changing experiences like this. You just may have to do things a little differently and be a little more aware of how you are handling situations. I think it is important to fight the stigma surrounding mental health illnesses that still persist today. If we continue to talk about it and figure out how to help students of all abilities, then they will be less likely to hide it and more likely to enjoy themselves.

API:  You both spoke a lot about expectation in your writing- both the expectation you had for yourself going abroad and the expectations others had of you while abroad.  What advice do you have for students going abroad about expectation?

Jennifer: I think a lot of students think that going abroad means they get to reinvent themselves completely, and to a certain degree you do get to reinvent yourself. But you will still be you. Students need to know that just because you are going to live in France, or Mexico, or Australia, doesn’t mean that you will be completely different. If you liked to wear sweats around the house, you will want to pack them to take abroad. I made the mistake of thinking I’d always dress nice and learned the hard way that no one likes to watch Netflix wearing jeans.

Julie: In a perfect world, I would say that the best expectation to have is no expectation. Obviously this is an impossible feat, as everyone has some idea of what his or her experience will be like. However, it could never be more important to keep an open mind. I went to Spain with the mindset that I was going to embrace every new and exciting opportunity that came my way. But there was one thing key thing I failed to accept: myself. I had such high expectations of how much my Spanish skills would improve, how many places I would visit, how many friends I would make, and how many new things I would try that I started criticizing myself every time I would fall short of that ridiculously high bar.

If there was one thing I could tell myself before I went abroad, it would be this: Love yourself and your experiences. They are uniquely characteristic of you, and they make you who you are.

3. You are both extremely talented in creative expression, namely in writing and in art. Does that creative expression help you navigate any mental health concerns you have? Does your creative expression allow you to better understand your study abroad story?

Julie: Yes, definitely! Some of my favorite ways to relax and get some perspective were through things like listening to music and walking, playing ukulele, drawing sketches outside, writing letters/postcards, and journaling. I can’t tell you how many journal entries I have that are lists of encouragements, quotes, and doodles that helped me process what I was going through. I even made a “Rookie’s Guide for Spain” for one of my best friends while I was flying between various cities. I knew she was going to study abroad in Spain the semester after me, so I tailored it to Spain-specific tips, and tips that I knew would fit her personality. It was a great tool in helping me to validate my personal abroad experience, as it created an outlet for everything I had learned while abroad. It gave me a real sense of purpose, especially when I was feeling like I was a failure for not feeling the way I was “supposed” to. It was nice to have physical proof that I had gained something from my experience after all.

Jennifer: Writing has always been a form of therapy for me. It’s how I process what I’m going through, and recently I’ve found comfort in lists. If I write down the things I need to do, or a little list of worries, it helps get them out of my head and the panicky feelings I experience stop. It was my mother who recommended that I keep a journal when I went abroad, because she thought I’d like to remember it down the road. I don’t think she’ll ever know how much that suggestion helped me. I was able to write down the wonderful things I did, like eat macarons under the Eiffel Tower, but I also was able to process the homesickness and mixed emotions brought on from culture shock. Journaling made study abroad so much better.

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API: Why was it important to you to share your experience? How would you encourage others to share their study abroad story?

Julie: Even before I left for Spain, I knew sharing my study abroad experience was something I would do. With friends and family, sharing my experience meant describing in detail everything I had gone through for four months without them. With professors, employers, and other professionals I knew, sharing my experience meant illustrating everything I had learned about myself, my culture, and Spain’s culture. With aspiring study abroad students, it meant telling tales of all of the exciting adventures they would soon be experiencing first hand. The difficulty of sharing my experience in diverse ways was that I sometimes felt pressured to share only certain aspects of my story, or in a certain way, based on my audience.

Jennifer: I like sharing my story with people because I was inspired by the stories of others. All of us have this need to connect to others and share experiences, and study abroad is one of the ways you can do that. I want students who are out there suffering from depression to know that they can still go out into the world and see things. That depression doesn’t have to handicap your life completely.

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API: Now that you’ve spent a significant amount of time exploring other cultures, what’s next? How do you envision continuing to live an international life?

Julie:  I don’t think I will ever stop living an “international life”, as studying abroad has taught me to never take people or situations at face value, but to consider what the world might look like through their eyes. You never know what path they may have gone down, or what “luggage” they may carry.

Jennifer: Study abroad made me aware of how little I actually knew about the world, and it lit this desire to learn more. I traveled solo after college for the first time, powered by the strength and independence I discovered while studying abroad sophomore year, and when I started my first post-grad job I also got involved with a locally-based non-profit that deals with international development, and it’s funny how experiences can shape your future. Study abroad and this non-profit have had such impacts on my life. Now I am filled with the desire to go out and change the world, making it better for students all around the globe.  

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