4 Steps to Stay Mentally Healthy Abroad

Maria Lytle is a student at Franklin and Marshall College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand in 2015.

Before officially deciding to study abroad, I was discouraged by some of the counselors at my school from going to New Zealand.  I was told because I still struggled with depression and anxiety, that it wasn’t realistic I could make it nearly 6 months alone in another country without my familiar support system.  But I knew this is what I wanted to do.  I knew that there was a type of healing and experience of growth that was only possible through facing some of my biggest fears.  I vowed to myself that I would make myself the priority.  I would practice self-care.  I would love being in another country.  I would prove them wrong.

Perhaps you’re someone who has dealt with mental illness, but still wants to study abroad.  Or maybe you just want to make sure you maintain a positive outlook through out your time away from home.  Here are 4 of the tips I found most useful to stay mentally well abroad, and 4 tips that made those 6 months some of the most exciting and memorable months of my life.

1. Create a support system early on 

Before making the move, do your research.  Most universities offer counseling services for students, and it’s a great service to make use of.  If your school doesn’t offer counseling, search for nearby counselors in the area.  It would also be helpful for your program advisor to know any reservations or concerns you may have.  Your advisor is there to support you and assist you in making your transition as smooth as possible, so feel free to reach out!  My advisor, Taylor, was such a great resource.  I was having a difficult week toward midterms and she took me out for coffee and gave me great insight about how to time manage better. It’s also great to get plugged in when you arrive.  Go to the university’s activities fair and find clubs or sports that interest you.  It’s a great opportunity to meet interesting people and a way to make friends beyond the people in your program/classes.

2. Make a “I NEED TO DO THIS” list

I lucked out by having my best friends abroad also be my roommates.  One of the first things we bonded over was a “must do” list of what we felt we needed to get out of our time in Wellington.  Restaurants and bars to try.  Concerts to go to.  Landmarks we had to see.  Make this list.  Remind yourself of what you want to get from your time abroad.  Every time you complete one, happily cross it off the list.  You may have days where you feel yourself sinking into old thought patterns.  On those days, look at this list and remember the amazing things you’ve already experienced and the awesome opportunities to come.

3. Find balance

I find I’m most content when I’ve found a happy medium between being so chaotically busy and having entirely too much time on my hands.  It’s wonderful to have things to look forward to, but it’s also crucial to leave some time for yourself to recharge and reflect.  Studying abroad is about adventuring and traveling.  Plan trips to look forward to and little outings to break up your week while also leaving time to complete schoolwork (because that’s still a thing) and time to refuel.  Hopefully your program schedules events through out the semester that get you away from campus for a while and show you a side of your country you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.  IFSA-Butler, the program I studied through, planned a wine tasting trip, dolphin swimming in the Marlborough Sounds, and a trip to the Weta Workshop.  Your study abroad program is a great home base to form friendships and share experiences.

4. Accept that at times, it’s okay to not be okay 

You’re going to have days where you feel unnecessarily sad.  You can remind yourself of all the reasons you have to be grateful: time to explore, meet new people, live where you’ve always wanted to.  Sometimes, sadness can still come and go in waves.  And that’s okay.  It will pass.  It doesn’t make you ungrateful and it doesn’t make you weak.  Commend yourself for having the courage to do what many people couldn’t.  Tomorrow will be better and the list you made for yourself will always be there in the morning.

I guarantee you that you will find healing in your time abroad. You will learn yourself more intimately in a few months than you ever thought was possible.  Believe that you can do this.  Trust in your ability to grow and appreciate the person you’ve become.

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