by Molly Kerkham
University of Sheffield
CN: loneliness, stress, medication
A year abroad comes with high expectations; I’m spending a year of my degree teaching English in France, and for the most part it’s been great. However, for those with mental health issues, year abroad challenges can be harder to overcome. After months of meetings and paperwork, when your year abroad finally arrives and university support all-too-frequently melts away, it’s common to feel suddenly dropped into the deep end. With a deluge of changes – new city, new language, new friends – it’s not surprising that a year abroad can provoke new mental health problems or exacerbate existing ones.
When your year abroad doesn’t seem like the-best-time-ever, it feels you’re somehow doing it wrong. For me, occasionally on nights in watching Netflix, a feeling creeps into me that I’m wasting my time. That I should be out there: finding myself, in a bar flirting in fluent French, experiencing things. That somehow this isn’t the whirlwind it was hyped up to be.
“A feeling creeps into me that I’m wasting my time. That I should be out there: finding myself, in a bar flirting in fluent French, experiencing things”
There’s also the culture shock, alongside the alarming discovery that maybe I’m not as good at French as I thought I was. While on a good day blunders are easily brushed off (or at most a funny story), on a bad day they can weigh on you like a tonne of bricks. A succession of bungled conversations with native-speakers can add up to feeling like all your hard work has been for nothing; the discovery that chilli flakes (or something else you used to take for granted) is near impossible to track down can leave you feeling lost. Sometimes it’s easier said than done to chalk it all up to ‘being a learning curve’.
Social media is a blessing and curse in this respect: a great way to keep homesickness at bay by staying in contact with family and friends, but also a window onto everyone’s ‘best self’. Seeing pictures of friends apparently living it up – whether on a night out back at uni, or on their own year abroad halfway up a mountain in Uruguay – can make it feel like you’re the only one not having fun.
“While on a good day blunders are easily brushed off (or at most a funny story), on a bad day they can weigh on you like a tonne of bricks”
However, it’s important to remember that you are living here. If you’re somewhere for months at a time, then you’ll have good days and bad day – just like back home. It sounds obvious, but it can be easy to imagine your year abroad as an extended holiday, full of stress-free sunny days. For me, it helped just to bear in mind: this is okay. Everyone has ups and downs.
But what if it’s not okay? It can be hard to know where to turn, especially as many universities seem to abandon year abroad students to fend for themselves and lack adequate mental health support. Almost eight in ten students have experienced mental health problems at university, and the figure is likely to be similar or higher during what can be a stressful experience. However, there are plenty of ways to look after your mental health during your year abroad.
A key aspect for dealing with mental health abroad is preparation. Before you go, think about the people who you usually turn to. Make a list of the ways that you can contact them abroad: Whatsapp, Skype or a simple telephone call. This might be no match for a face to face conversation, but having a plan can certainly make things easier when things get bad. For the same reason, make a note of the support your university can offer you; being aware of what’s available can be reassuring and make searching for help easier (especially if your university website is anything as maze-like as mine). Also, if you’re going to an EU country, and keep your UK mobile contract, you’ll be able to access British telephone talking services (such as the ones listed by the NHS here) for no extra charge.
Also, if you take medication at home, you’re going to need it abroad too. Talk to your GP before you leave: it’s often possible to get a three-month prescription of a drug than you take regularly. If you’re worried about accessing health services abroad, talking to a trusted tutor can help; even if they don’t know the answer themselves, they should be able to point you in the direction of someone who does. Remember, you can still access your university’s health services abroad, even if it’s only for advice.
Preparation also reduces your stress during your year abroad. For example, online research (or, even better, talking to someone who’s done it before) is really important for knowing what to expect. This can limit culture shock, but it can also help out in other practical ways. For example, a heads up on what personal documents to bring with you (in my experience, everything) makes dealing with foreign bureaucracy infinitely easier.
That said, if you’re feeling low now, being told to prepare months ago isn’t useful. It doesn’t mean that it’s too late and that however you’re feeling now, you just have to deal with it for the remainder of your time there. There are always ways to look after your mental health during your time abroad. For example, allow yourself to stay at home – without feeling guilty. By taking time by yourself to recharge, you’re not wasting your time abroad.
“If you’re feeling low now, being told to prepare months ago isn’t useful. It doesn’t mean that it’s too late and that however you’re feeling now, you just have to deal with it for the remainder of your time there”
On the other hand, getting out of the house – if you can – is really important to your mental health too. For me, even briefly socialising lifts my mood. Trying new things, however daunting they seem at first, can really help your mental state. Of course, this isn’t so easy for everyone and doesn’t have to mean something daunting like joining a new club or class. It can simply mean heading a local park you haven’t explored yet, or checking out a nearby bookshop. It’s important to listen to yourself to find out what you need, rather than what you think you ought to do; something that feels like self-care to one person can be quite the opposite for another.
The same thing is true of improving your language skills. Even just a short chat with a native speaker, for example while buying your shopping, can help. Of course, the feeling that you’re improving – or trying to improve – at a foreign language can lift your self-worth and confidence. Setting small goals (such as using a new word or phrase in conversation) can also help you to pay attention to things getting better.
“My university’s policies were not clear or easy to access online – especially considering they are intended for students who may be under considerable distress”
Finally, if your mental health is really suffering, then small steps like this can’t always help. Remember, it is okay to go home. Every university will have different procedures and rules about this, and it’s unlikely be something you can do at the last minute, but it’s possible. For example, my university advises deferring your placement only if your needs cannot be met while abroad (such as by a local health provider, or through the university’s own remote counselling service). While I haven’t been in this situation myself, my university’s policies were not clear or easy to access online – especially considering they are intended for students who may be under considerable distress.
That said, in my case, I was able to ride out the wave of feeling low. Just because things are difficult now, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be like that forever. Now, I’ve settled in, made friends and things are going well. Remember, a year abroad is only a few months of your life. Before you know it – for better or worse – your time abroad will be over. It will help you grow, even if it’s in completely different ways to what you were expecting.
Header image by IGOR TREPESHCHENOK
One thought on “Culture shock: handling your year abroad”
I’m on my year abroad in Barcelona right now. This post is incredibly important. A year abroad is almost like any other year, except filled with expectations. You shouldn’t expect it to be the best year of your life. It might be, but it most likely might not and that’s ok too!