Mental health while studying abroad has been something that I’ve been wanting to talk about on this blog for a long while now, but I was never quite sure how to go about it, so as usual, my plan of attack is gonna be to go right in and be blunt about everything. I got a message on one of my blog posts from a cool person looking to study abroad in Galway who asked about the social attitudes towards mental health in Galway, and that has really helped to prompt this post.
I have been “officially” diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and taking medication for it, since freshman year of college, even though looking back now I can think of at least several previous times/eras in my life in which I could have benefited from some help. Freshman year was a particularly hard time for me, and obviously the medication has been something that has helped greatly, but I find the most beneficial thing has just been doing my best to be as open about it as I can, and I still have occasional bad days/periods. My first year at college, I was able to meet a lot of people who had the same kind of issues that I did, so I was lucky enough to be really comfortable discussing them. It was so comforting having people around who would just know and understand without me having to say anything, but studying abroad would be my first real time having to really to “come out” to people about it. One of my ways with dealing with hard times has always been dark humor, so I find myself making jokes about it a lot, and then I become wholly unprepared for the reactions I sometimes get. I just hate the way people tend to treat you afterwards; I don’t want to be treated like glass, but I want them to understand me and something that I feel is an important part of who I am, which is hard to explain in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m romanticizing it. I just mean mostly that I’m not ashamed of it.
Nonetheless, I found it a much harder thing to talk about while abroad, than say, my sexuality. I felt no qualms about coming out to my roommate within the first few weeks, or coming out to the rest of the people I started to hang out with the most within the first month or so, but I think it took me until about 2/3rds of the way into my time abroad that I began to mention things about my mental health to my friends who I knew would most understand. It kind of becomes the closest and most intimate conversation of a relationship, because once you tell a person something like “yeah I take medication because I spent the ages of 15/16/17 being suicidal from time to time”, they’ll usually come out with something extremely personal about themselves as well. So, when I finally did, it was incredible bonding experience and I wished I had done it sooner, especially because the day I really did was after my solo day-trip to Dublin, which was paved with anxiety and suppressed panic attacks because I spent the entire time being lost and was simply too exhausted to do any more pretending. That’s something I still need to work on.
As a community, especially within NUIG, I felt that Galway was very open and liberal about things like mental disorders and mental health. Over the semester, there were events and things about stopping the stigma surrounding mental health, of which I was unfortunately never able to join in because they seemed to happen whenever I had planned a trip elsewhere. IFSA-Butler as well is also very helpful in making sure you are okay and checking in with you. For the health insurance IFSA gives you when studying abroad, you have to cite any medications you take – it is also very important to make sure you will be able to have enough medication with you. Ireland only allows you to take a 3-month supply with you, but with IFSA’s help and suggestions, my parents had no trouble mailing me more when I needed it. Our first couple of days when we touched down in Dublin, we had lots of IFSA orientation, and again, health was something we discussed during one of the sessions, especially mental health. Studying abroad is a big transition for everyone, and they are very aware of and open about it. During one of the breaks, one of our advisors came up to me and pulled me aside, said that they had noticed what I had put down on my form, and asked me if I had been hoping to go see a psychologists or anyone while abroad, which could easily be set up through NUIG. I said no (I was really bad at therapy ), and they simply smiled and told me that if changed my mind, I could always let them know. It felt very safe and easy.
So, overall, I would say that if this is a worry of yours while studying abroad, I know it will be okay. To get all “Lifetime movie” on you, I think you’re always going to find at least one person that you trust. You’re gonna be just fine, kids, and even if you’re not, you will be able to get help and support.