It Isn’t All Champagne and Strolls along the Seine: A Student’s Story on Coping with Depression Abroad

API alumni came together to feature issues related to mental health awareness and study abroad.  Join us this week as we look at the many aspects of healthy adventure in a foreign culture.

I’ve always wanted to go to France. A friend sent me a postcard from Paris when I was twelve, and I stuck that image of the Eiffel Tower, all shining white lights and a dark blue sky, on my wall for years, until the color started to fade and the edges peeled. I wanted to go to France more than I could put into words but I almost let the chance to study abroad pass me by because I was scared–scared that my depression would keep me from enjoying France.

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Studying abroad with depression is a hard thing to do. You are away from your comfort zone and managing depression can be even more difficult while you are on the road, but it is so worth it.

Studying abroad won’t cure your depression. There is no cure for depression, and anyone who suffers from it knows that. We count our good days like those in AA, grateful for each one. Studying abroad will let you explore the world and broaden your perspective with the safety net of a support system.

It’s the questions that bring the anxiety, especially those that concern your mental health. Am I going to be able to handle the change? Will I be able to enjoy it? Will I have a depressive episode and have to leave? Are you ready for an adventure of such massive proportions? These questions roll through your head like the opening credits of a Star Wars film.

As someone who has struggled with depression since I was young, I am one of those people who can get so overwhelmed with anxiety and nervousness that I feel lost. When I get worried like that, the only thing that helps is a list. I wrote down all the fears I had about studying abroad and then sorted which fears were normal fears everyone must go through and which was a mental health fear. Learning the language is a normal fear. Not being able to go out with people because I can’t summon the will to get out of bed is a mental health fear. After making the list, I found that most of my fears were normal ones, which was a pleasant surprise. There were only a few that were mental health fears.

Of all the fears, homesickness worried me the most. Homesickness is the worst thing that you can go through abroad because there is no instant “fix” for it. You can cancel lost credit cards or survive an unexpected layover (which are both awful) but you can’t alleviate the ache of missing the familiar-the faces, roads, foods, flavors, the things you know. You can’t get over the emptiness that missing something leaves. I struggled with homesickness a lot as a freshman in college and was worried that going to France would be a million times worse. At our pre-departure meeting, my professor said that homesickness is a real possibility for most students. However, she said that homesickness usually happens in the third week, when the initial excitement has worn off and you have adjusted to life in the new place. She ended up only having a handful of students who experienced homesickness, but they were able to use different methods of coping to push through and enjoy living in another country.   You can plan trips or little adventures to take your mind off the homesickness.

I was also scared of being open about my struggle with depression.  I knew I needed to talk with my support group- my family, my therapist, and my professor to get their advice. Sometimes we think we are ready for things when we really aren’t, something that we learn with a lot of trial and error. I had many conversations about my mental state and my fears, and surprisingly I felt reassured by talking with them. They helped me see that I shouldn’t let the “what if” keep me from experiencing incredible things.

Still I had fears getting on that plane, but I took the leap and went to France, and as it turns out my fears were for nothing. I was able to speak with my family and friends with wonderful things like Skype or WhatsApp, and I had such a sublime time that I never really found myself depressed. There were moments when I would reflect but I was constantly busy living my French life.

That’s something you learn when you suffer from depression; staying busy keeps the dark thoughts at bay. And abroad, there is a lot to keep you busy. From constantly translating words in your head just to function to doing fun things, like afternoons with new friends spent at a café or getting up early Friday morning to go somewhere exciting like Geneva or Paris for the weekend.

It is hard to figure out what you are feeling when you are preparing to go abroad. Sometimes you feel nervous or worried, but a lot of the time you are filled with this unabridged excitement. You aren’t setting out to live someone else’s story, you are writing your own.

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While writing this I read back through the journal I kept while studying abroad, something I recommend everyone do while studying abroad, even if it’s only a place where you complain in English. Its cheap therapy and a great way to remember your experience years down the road. Today the thick leather book is bursting with ticket stubs and random bits I collected during those six months, held together with a pink rubber band. But it is the entry from my plane ride to Paris on that first day that strikes a chord, “I pray that on June 4, my passport will be bursting with stamps, and my life’s story will forever bear the marks left by those places I’ve visited and people I’ve met.” And it is.

Jennifer Teeter is an API Global Leader for the 2015-2016 academic year.  Interested in sharing your story through the API Global Leadership Academy? Apply today!

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  1. Yvonne McQuarrie says:

    Thank you, Patrick, for sharing this! It’s important to discuss these issues. Study abroad is always so romanticized – and rightly so, because it is, indeed, an exciting experience. However, I’ve talked to many students who felt like they were not living up to the study abroad expectations because they struggled to adapt to the life in the country.

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