Advice for prospective year abroad students with mental health problems
We all know the statistics: mental health problems affect between 1-in-3 and 1-in-4 Britons at some point in their life. So, with that in mind, there’s a good chance that a few of us who suffer from mental health problems are jetting off to study or work abroad each semester. These conditions, while they should never affect anyone’s chances of doing something potentially so life changing, can complicate matters somewhat. So here’s a handy guide to what to think about before you set off.
1. Choosing your placement
For one thing with some conditions it can be tempting to put your fingers in your ears and sing la-la-la and hope both the decision and the applications do themselves. But the hard truth is being ‘on it’ is integral. Something I personally regret doing is not adequately researching what support would be available, what access to health care I would have (particularly for those looking outside the EU) and not considering what the impact of the culture would be on my condition. A lot of other students on their year abroad have mentioned the difficulty in finding support if they hadn’t planned ahead and in some cases its absence, or simply being something ‘we plan to implement soon’. And for those working being frank with possible employers if asked would be invaluable, it may jeopardise some positions but will guarantee you a boss who will at least show some support or sympathy.
2. Insurance and visas
Insurance and visas are not worth waiting on either. Some, though far from all, consulates, on the flagging of any long term condition can and do request medicals which you may have to pay for. Not only that, but these can delay visa application (this has certainly happened with regard to Canadian student visas) and as such your departure date! And no one ever wants that stress.
Well researched insurance is also worth every second of time it takes. Whilst legally no one can refuse you insurance they can refuse to pay out on conditions deemed the results of a ‘pre-existing condition’. So shop around and don’t be afraid to ring up and ask probing questions. Though as a ray of sunshine lists of good insurers for those with a mental health condition are already out there online, and some mental health charities, particularly those for bi-polar disorder, even offer their own travel insurance.
3. Plotting, planning and packing
An important thing to think about is living arrangements. Social anxiety sufferers, for instance, should consider whether to live alone, preventing any additional stress, or to live with people - especially if going out is going to be a chore and to ensure that all important exposure to the language. How will how you live affect your condition? And will having to find somewhere upon arrival affect your stress levels and anything else they may affect, is it better to have a guaranteed flat or spot in halls you haven’t seen yet for you or be able to scrupulously check you’re going to be happy and comfortable in that space? In such a case as this it may be better to even consider a trip out early, perhaps with friends, or the other half or mum and dad, on the premise they get a holiday if they help you house hunt!
In advance it’s also a great idea to speak to a counsellor, health worker, mentor or staff member to help you plan how you’re going to deal with any issues you might come up against. Skipping this step is something I cursed every day I was on my work placement. It can offer a handy structure for those who need structure and also guarantee support back home, which isn’t necessarily something available to those who didn’t speak up. Big White Wall, an NHS run anonymous online service, can also be a brilliant tool to help you plan, cope and vent, as well as share successes when you see just what you’re capable of.
The final thing that sticks out as an important plan applies mostly to those with anxiety and mood related conditions, but pack like you’re going to live there, that’s what you’re doing. Every Study Abroad guide mentions packing family photos and such but take trinkets to adorn your room, posters and blu-tac, everything that fits around a laptop, clothes and a toothbrush will serve to make those first few weeks and that shocking new environment that bit easier to cope with. Take films and plenty to distract yourself too. Downloads are easy to get now and DVDs don’t take up a lot of room in a CD wallet. Homesickness and culture shock are standard for any time spent abroad; don’t let them or anything else on your mind send you packing defeated!
4. Flying High
Another thing to think about is getting there! Make the journey work for you! Are an extra couple of hours in your own bed really worth the hassle of having to arrive sleep deprived, or being unsure whether you’ll make a bus connection? Is seeing everyone at the airport really worth a mid-flight panic attack or plummet in mood? This stuff is hard for everyone. Think long and hard about the best option for you when travelling: it’s your year abroad!
And so with a calm mind, a bulging case, and everything in order, your year abroad can be, as it should be, the best year of your degree!