Whilst many of us are getting back into the swing of university life, plenty of students will be well into the first few months of their year abroad. Although this might, at first glance, seem to be all sunshine and partying, this time of the year can be particularly difficult for students living away from home for the first time. The novelty of moving abroad can wear off, and the reality of work and study edges ever closer. This opens us up to a whole host of issues that can easily affect your mental health. That is why it’s important to prepare yourself, be familiar with coping mechanisms, and know where to go if you need help.
The most common issue people struggle with when moving abroad is homesickness, but this issue is far more complex than simply missing your home. It involves a whole host of causes and emotions that you may not have even considered…
Being out of your routine: Not only can you miss your friends or family, but it’s really common to simply miss your routine at home. In Spain, meals are eaten a lot later, whilst in most countries in Latin America the average working day will begin a lot earlier to avoid the heat; all over the world, timetables are different and it can take some time to get used to that.
Overwhelm and isolation: Linguistic and cultural barriers in your new country can make you crave home even more. Getting to grips with the different social normalities such as simple tasks like weekly food shops also take time: queueing, paying and even weighing your food seem completely different at first, but you soon settle in.
Loneliness: Even if you’ve gone on your year abroad with friends, it can be a shock to not have the close circle of friends you might be used to at uni back home.
Time differences: Missing home is heavily associated with feelings of neglect and missing out. If you’re somewhere with a significant time difference, it can be hard to schedule regular contact with people back home to stay in the loop. But whilst gluing yourself to social media may seem like the best thing to do, it can often lead to you feeling even more lonely.
It’s difficult to prepare yourself for those little nuances each country and culture carries, but being patient and not being put off by feeling a little alien at times will help you feel like a local in no time. Moving to your year abroad destination a few weeks before your studies or work starts will give you that vital time to settle into a new routine and start to meet new people.
After living abroad in the past, I thought I was completely immune to homesickness. Of course, I missed my family and friends, but it never stopped me from having a good time or making the most of my time away. But when I moved to Colombia for five months, I experienced a lot of challenges with homesickness during the first few weeks. Although I’d been further away from home and lived away longer in the past, I’d never lived so far away for so long. Facing these challenges and getting through the other side not only gave me resilience but also taught me lots of coping mechanisms to deal with those completely normal feelings you might experience during the first part of your year abroad.
Say yes: The first, and seemingly easiest piece of advice, can often be the hardest: saying yes. You’ll be surprised by the amount of offers that at first don’t seem appealing but end up being some of the most memorable experiences from your time away.
Stay active: Strong links have been made between maintaining good physical and mental health. Joining a gym or a sports team will give you a chance to meet new people and even try something new.
Stay in contact: Keeping in regular contact with people back home can help you combat any issues you’re struggling with. But it’s also not important to rely too heavily on this, and definitely not to feel guilty if it’s difficult for you to find the time to talk with everyone as much as you’d like to.
Plan ahead: Making plans, like trips or visits from friends and family, will make the time ahead of you seem much less overwhelming. You’ll likely end up realising that you haven’t actually got that much time to do all of the things you want to do.
Learn to be solo: Your year abroad is the perfect time to learn how to be independent, and, what’s more, how to love being alone. After the first few weeks you’ll realise that eating in a restaurant on your own or going to a museum alone can be very liberating.
Sometimes you can try every piece of advice given to you and those feelings of loneliness and inadequacy persist. That’s why it’s vital to know what support systems and medical advice is available to you wherever you are in the world. If you’ve been sent by your university, you’ll still have full access to any advice and counselling services they provide. Your host university should, in most situations, be able to provide you with some form of care. Make sure you have these contacts noted down before you travel, for peace of mind and in case of emergencies.
It’s really important to say that dealing with mental health issues on your year abroad isn’t just about the ones that can develop whilst you’re out there. Pre-existing issues should never stop someone from going on a year abroad and enjoying it to the fullest. What’s most important is that you’re prepared and have done your research before you head out. Make sure to buy full coverage travel insurance before you leave that can cover you if something goes wrong. If you have any prescription medication make sure to check that it’s available and, most importantly, legal wherever you’re going. If not, make sure to get enough before you travel!
Remember, there is no shame in reaching out and you’re not alone in your struggles: everyone experiences mental health issues in some form or another so the most important thing you can do is share how you’re feeling.
For more information on taking care of your mental health abroad visit https://www.gov.uk/guidance/foreign-travel-advice-for-people-with-mental-health-issues