To mark Mental Health Awareness Week and the Time to Talk campaign I have decided to write about my experiences with mental health problems and how this affects my year abroad. Since around the age of 16 I have been to many counselling sessions and briefly to a psychiatrist because of the adverse effect of my mental health problems on my physical health. All in all it has been quite a long and arduous struggle.
Things got significantly worse at the beginning of 2013. I visited my GP and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder. I have been on anti-depressants (Sertraline) since then.
Although it’s not something I have been particularly closed about, I haven’t been overly open either. I hope this blog will be useful on two levels. Firstly, to help other people make the right choice and/or be more prepared and informed about doing a year abroad. (I do note that mental health problems are personal and varied. I cannot claim to be informed about the spectrum of problems people may experience. Secondly, it is a way for me to come to terms with my mental health problems.) For too long I have viewed my mental health problems as a weakness. I hope by being candid and open I can be more accepting of myself. It is not something to hide or shy away from.
There are some blogs out there but I thought I would add my voice. So here are a few pertinent questions that I thought people would want to ask. If you have any other questions please feel free to ask in the comment section.
Why do a year abroad if you have mental health problems?
For me, the worst thing about my mental health problems is the feeling that it will hold me back forever. I find the debilitating notion that all my life experiences will be tainted by unhappiness and anxiety quite troubling. Coming to Germany was an important step to show me that I can live with myself. It might sound odd, but perhaps anyone who has mental health problems can empathise.
I also came in the full knowledge that I would be faced with numerous uncomfortable circumstances. Despite having broken down into tears on a few occasions (sometimes in public…. embarrassingly). I know I will emerge stronger from the experience at the end of the year. If you can avoid the type of traumas I had when I first moved here, that can help tremendously.
Did the year abroad better or worsen mental health problems?
It would be disingenuous to say this year has been an endless stream of positivity. I have had some intensely dark moments and a number of panic attacks. In some respects this is part and parcel of the depression and anxiety problems I suffer with. Undoubtedly, being in a new environment has exacerbated it to some extent. Also, I have to admit that the notorious high consumption of alcoholic beverages on Erasmus have sometimes not worked in my favour.
I went through quite a dark period in the lead up to, and around, Christmas – finding it impossible to get out of bed and crying a lot. The doctor doubled my dose of anti-depressants for a short while.
In spite of the ups and downs I do not regret doing an Erasmus at all. I have a renewed sense of achievement – I have lived in a foreign country and improved my knowledge of German culture and language. And I have a renewed belief in my abilities after a turbulent second year and grades I wasn’t happy about.
I do not know what the situation is for other students, but for me there is not much academic pressure during the year abroad. More than anything this is a year of new experiences, cultural exchange and meeting new people. I feel like this will give me the positive ‘bump’ needed to face the notoriously difficult final year of a law degree.
How to prepare for a year abroad with health/mental health problems?
Do not forget to sort out an EHIC card if you haven’t got one already. If you are taking medication it is very important to see your doctor before you leave. Usually they can issue medication for up to 3 months. Also, talk through your situation with your doctor so they know exactly what is happening. Sometimes it may be possible to have your parent/guardian send repeat prescriptions by post. However, I would advise to consult a doctor in the country of your destination if you need medication.
It is worth researching the health care system of the country you are going to. I would warn you that information might be a little thin on the ground. I had to navigate the system when I arrived. Trying to figure it out was a cause of anxiety. There isn’t much that can be done about that … unfortunately.
If you are dealing with mental health problems and are attending counselling/psychiatry sessions, you should bring up any decision to take a year abroad with them. (Though you probably have already.) It can help to work through your thought processes and put your mind at ease. Your counsellor/psychiatrist can teach you relaxation methods to utilise when you’re abroad.
Unfortunately, there may not be good mental health services at the university you are going to. And, of course, there is often a language barrier. Some universities offer welfare services, sometimes in English. Research what is available.
What’s it like going to a doctor in a foreign country?
Obviously it varies from country to country. In Germany I found the locations of the doctors’ surgeries bizarre. The one I go to is in an apartment block by a kebab shop! It’s completely different to the health centres and practices we are used to in the UK.
I find the system unusual. Most doctors have specialisations. I had to make sure I went to a doctor who was a General Practitioner and not a specialist.
It is quite strange talking to a doctor in German. (Don’t worry if you don’t speak the language of the country you are going to. The advantage of English is that so many people speak it. You are bound to find a doctor to talk to.) When I wanted to talk about mental health I prepared before going to the surgery to make sure I could convey what I was going through. The doctor was very friendly, however I was taken aback that he wasn’t inquisitive at all. I’m used to doctors to being thorough in England: especially when it comes to mental health problems. We scarcely covered the things I had prepared to say and the doctor was more than willing to increase my dosage of anti-depressants.
How will people react if I tell them about mental health problems?
I disclosed this to a few people while on my year abroad, often in undesirable circumstances. … But I won’t delve into that! At any rate I believe it is a personal choice whether you want to say anything. Of course going abroad doesn’t mean your support network at home has disintegrated. I am blessed to have a very understanding family and circle of friends to whom I am eternally indebted. There is, however, something easier about having someone nearby ‘in the know’.
Despite this, there is always a worry whether mental health is taken seriously: particularly when sharing with people from other cultures. At least from my experience I can say that people are more understanding than you may think.
(I also have to link this fantastic cartoon about depression.)