Traveling Abroad With Mental Illness

June 23, 2016

This post was written by a student at San Diego State University, and was originally posted on SDSU Be International.

Mental health is a subject that is highly taboo in America. There is little to no discussion on the topic which creates a culturally accepted climate of ignorance surrounding the issue. This post is a means of showing the impact mental illness had on my time studying abroad.

This is a personal account, and as such, my experiences may not apply to every individual living with mental illness. Everyone lives with and manages their mental illness in a different way. I merely hope that in sharing my story on this platform I can help people with mental illness who may be hesitant to study abroad and decrease the stigma surrounding this topic.

Choosing to travel and study abroad can be a complicated and stressful endeavor for just about anyone. Doing so while suffering from mental illness can therefore be a truly monumental undertaking.

This summer, I traveled through Ireland, Scotland, England and France over the course of 22 days. By no means was this the longest or most strenuous of study abroad programs, but it was still a trial to surmount when the chemicals in my brain were working against me.

Since senior year of high school I have struggled with depression and anxiety, which in turn, have led to the development of other health problems such as an eating disorder. I have never sought professional help for these problems, a common trait among those with mental illness. Reaching out is one of the most difficult things to do for many of us.

Sometimes I found myself in abject misery despite being surrounded by some of the most incredible sights on this planet. It is critical to understand that these feelings in no way spring from entitlement or lack of appreciation for the experience I have been fortunate enough to take part in. One of the most frustrating elements of depression coupled with anxiety is that it is illogical. I could be aware that “woah, I’m eating dinner in Edinburgh, five minutes away from the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote most of the first Harry Potter book!,” but that did little to mitigate the self-hatred and disassociation that were making me isolate physically and mentally from my school group.

And it was noticeable.

I am highly self-aware in regards to my depression. I know when I’m isolating. I know when the voice in the back of my head is whispering toxic lies.

This also means that I was aware of the looks that got thrown my way when I was staring at the floor of our Edinburgh restaurant a week and a half into the trip. I hadn’t spoken to anyone in twenty minutes, let alone made eye contact. From my peripherals, I could see my professors watching me closely. I watched one of my group members a few seats down pausing her conversation to peer at me in concern. But there was nothing I could do. Sometimes, I get stuck in feedback loops of negativity that can’t be broken, even when there is no obvious cause or the thoughts aren’t true.

It was only when my professors asked if I was alright (in front of the group which did wonders for my anxiety) that I forced myself to interact with those around me. Even then, it wasn’t much.

This was one of the more extreme examples of how mental illness impacted my program, and it was a rare occurrence. It wasn’t always that obvious. Often times, it was a hesitation, a far more subtle withdrawal from those around me. Without drawing too much from cliche, mental illness is like a shadow you never asked for.

My depression would mostly manifest as a sudden, unshakable apathy. No matter the wonders surrounding me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t deserve this experience or that I would never belong with the other people in the group. It was hard to force myself to smile for pictures when I was tearing myself apart within my head.

My anxiety, on the other hand, would appear as minor panic attacks. For no reason. Like I said, mental illness isn’t always logical. Some days I would wake up and feel automatically on edge, like something bad was going to happen or I was going to make a mistake. I was terrified of hanging out with members of my group beyond my roommates. Did I want to accept this person’s invitation to go out with their group for dinner? Yes. Was I going to? No. My anxiety would warn me that the invitations weren’t genuine, that these people didn’t actually want to spend time with me. They were just being nice. No matter how salacious I knew these beliefs to be, years of self-indoctrination made it hard to deny them.

Traveling with mental illness was like having a third, unwanted and oversized carry-on bag that I was trying to stow in the overhead bin on a flight. I was not supposed to have it in the first place, so people would start muttering about me and asking why I couldn’t pack light like everyone else. Then, when I would be trying to put it in the compartment of the plane, I felt like I was taking up too much space and drawing too much attention. I could practically feel everyone on the plane glaring at me when in reality next to no one had noticed or much cared about my metaphorical additional baggage.

In many ways, I have thus far only mentioned the negatives. On days when I was on a high note mentally, however, I had some of the most amazing times of my life studying abroad. Many a happy tear were shed on this journey. There were so many incredible sights to see, people to meet, and memories to make. First and foremost I had to trust in myself. I had survived this long and I would survive this trip, too.

With mental illness, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have a bad day. But the good days are what make you forget, even if for just a moment, that you were ever afraid or felt alone.

Overall, mental illness is a subject that many people aren’t comfortable discussing. This can be attributed to everything from ignorance to malice. Sharing one’s struggles with others can be a risky endeavor that hurts more than heals.

Or it can save your life.

In the very final meeting of class, our professors had us sit in a circle and share what we had learned during the trip. Needless to say, it got very emotional very quickly. It happens when you spend nearly a month living in close proximity with a small group of people. On our last round of sharing, I opened up and discussed my trials of doing the program while experiencing depression and anxiety.

It was a terrifying moment that I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to, but I’m thankful that I did. The members of my group were supportive and several came up to offer me words of encouragement. Not once after sharing did anyone ever show disdain or negativity towards me due to discussing my mental illness. The experience brought me closer to the group, and made me realize that I had no reason to be ashamed of myself simply for having depression and anxiety.

Support is one of the most helpful things you can give someone who is struggling with mental illness. If you know someone who is afflicted by it, reach out to them and offer your compassion. On the other hand, if you are the one suffering, don’t let the voices in your head win: talk to someone. I promise, there is someone in your life that will love and help you along the way to recovery.

And it may not be who you expect.

In time, that third, unwanted carry-on will shrink until it is no longer a burden you have to carry.

But you have to take the risk first.

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