Mental Health and the Year Abroad

Mental health is an extremely important topic that everyone needs to pay attention to. Especially students at university – and even more so for students on their Year Abroad – where homesickness, stress, substance abuse, comfort eating and a whole range of anxiety-induced problems can be evident.

Admitting that your mental health is not as good as it should be will be difficult as only you yourself know just how low you’re feeling. But with the lack of ‘real’ physical symptoms it’s hard to go to a GP and express how you feel, how it affects your life and those around you. One good thing about university is the mental health/wellbeing services that are available to help students going through a tough time. So, make sure you know where the team is situated, and how they can help you if you ever need it.

The Year Abroad will undoubtedly heighten all these anxieties during your university experience, regardless of whether you see yourself as a mentally stable and secure person. Moving to another country is exciting, nerve-wracking and scary. I was graced with a whole host of emotions in the run up to my flight to Mexico. But once I’d stepped on Mexican soil, I was happy, excited, and proud of myself for supposedly choosing the ‘brave’ option of Central America.

I’ve now been in Colima, Mexico for two months and have learnt a lot about my mental health throughout this process, especially after having sought help before my trip. So I want to share some tips on balancing your emotions, keeping a healthy mental state, and making the most out of a somewhat nerve-wracking – but exciting! – year of your life.

Write

For the past few years I have intermittently written a diary depending on my mood, to track how I’ve been feeling and to see if there are any links to aspects of my life that are making me feel ‘low’.

Buy yourself a little notebook and list the things in your life that should be making you happy, such as family, friends, pitching up in a new country for a year. Start writing one list every morning to set a happy and mindful tone for the rest of the day, and try to keep in the habit of setting aside some time to do so.

Get colouring

One of the best little presents I’ve received is a Colour Me Calm; a colouring book for adults. The book contains several templates to colour in in order to de-stress, meditate and relax. Focusing some time and energy on repetition eases any anxious thoughts, and is a way for your mind and body to wind down. Choice of colours adds to this experience, as cooler shades of blues and greens are calming, whilst warmer shades of reds and oranges will activate you. Even with the templates, you still have creative freedom to personalise your experience.

Meet new people

Moving to a different country on your own where the first language is not English will be difficult, and a bit of a shock. But this is what pushed me to go out and try meet new people, and to also take to a very helpful website Couchsurfing. It provides a platform for travellers to ‘surf’ at a host’s home, on their couch or spare bed. Whether it’s just for a few days, or longer, it gives the Couchsurfer a place to stay, usually free of charge, while they travel. All you do on the website is input where you want to go, what you plan to do, complete your profile with more information about yourself, and look for a host. However, they also have another option to just meet up with other Couchsurfers. So I started a message thread explaining – in Spanish – how I’d moved to Colima and want to meet new people and discover the beauty of my new home.

The thing about Couchsurfing is that everyone who uses the platform is extremely friendly, wants to learn about new cultures, and share their own culture. So I was so thankful when people started replying to me wanting to meet up. Through Couchsurfing I’ve also met a great group who focus some of their time on promoting a more sustainable lifestyle. For example, I helped out at a Clothes (and more) Swap event recently to encourage a more anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist way of living.

Another thing to keep in mind is that not everyone will have the best year of their life on their Year Abroad. Everyone reacts to new things differently, and experiences will vary due to a whole hosts of things. What you need to remember is that it’s just one year of your life that you need to try to enjoy just like any other. Make the most of it, step outside of your comfort zone, try new things, talk to locals, eat street food, and explore your new city. But don’t forget that feeling homesick is okay and completely normal. So Skyping friends and family back home doesn’t mean you’re not making the most of your time abroad. Keep an eye on your emotions and mental state and work out the best methods for you that will enable you to enjoy this part of your degree as much as possible.

Photo Credit: Aurimas Adomavicius via Compfight cc

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English and Spanish undergrad, recent Year Abroader and aspiring vegan.

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