Preparing for a Year Abroad with Mental Health Problems

I wrote this blog post on my old blog (englishhobbitabroad.wordpress.com) but thought with my post coming up later on today it would help to have a guide written about preparing for your Year Abroad before you actually get to the country you are going to. (Such a long sentence but I think it makes sense … right?)

1. A year abroad is not for the faint hearted. 

By this I mean, it’s not something you go into half-arsed or because you think it will be a good way to waste tons of money and a year of your life (sorry that sounds pessimistic). But you see where I am coming from. A year abroad will kind of make or break you, even without the mental health problems it will be a challenge so its not something to enter into lightly.
I am not trying to discourage you from going or anything but know that it won’t be easy and you do need to prepare for it when you have mental health problems.

2. Be prepared (attempts not to break out into song)

As with anything people will have different needs or issues relating to their mental health. You don’t need to be on medication to have a mental health problem the same way you don’t have to fly on a broomstick to be a witch. If you are on medication then as soon as you have confirmation for your Year Abroad make an appointment with your GP so you can set up a plan for what medication you will need, what you need to do to ensure you have enough/ a supply whilst you are out there. For antidepressants the NHS will not give you more than 3 months supply so you need to source your medication (legally) in the country you are going to. For me in Korea I have found an affordable clinic in Itaewon that had my medication in supply for an affordable amount.
Aside from medication it is important to ensure you have support and coping strategies in place that you know work for you. I find when I am sad bubbles and my favourite shows really helped calm me down so I brought them with me. I find ice packs on my face when I get in an anxious state help calm me down so I brought some pocket ice packs in my suitcase (these are also really great if you have Borderline Personality Disorder, BPD).

For a checklist for preparing for your year abroad with mental health please see Year Abroad Checklist

3. Support

Like with medication, as soon as you get confirmation of your Year Abroad set up a meeting with your degree tutor, year abroad coordinator (if they are different people) and talk to them about your mental health.

I am speaking from my experiences with Sheffield and at first I wasn’t allowed to go, I had to plan and prepare a lot before I was even considered being allowed to go because they care about my safety and I am grateful for that. I said I wanted to go and put together reasons why I felt I could go. We then sat down with Disability Services as well as my parents and discussed the best plan going forward including the support I could get from my home university.
If you are going to a Korean University then no help will be received from Korean universities (from my experience) as it is seen as special conditions which are disadvantageous to other students. So, it is so so so important to make contact with your home university tutor and if you can the disability service as well. If you don’t feel you can talk to your tutor directly, discuss with disability about their confidentiality clauses as well as putting a plan in place.

Having people in the know about your mental health are invaluable on a year abroad. They can provide you with advice, contacts for support either within the university or in your country of choice and if things don’t go quite like you wanted then you can contact them without having to start right at the very beginning (explaining you have mental health problems).

Disclaimer: Everyone’s universities and tutors are different as are their needs. I got very lucky with Sheffield but not every university will have the same system nor the same attitudes so be prepared when talking to them that things will probably be different to my experience.

4. Research

I cannot stress this enough. Research the attitudes to mental health in the country you are going, if the university has any support, what sort of facilities they offer in English etc. Don’t go into your Year Abroad blind. Make a list of questions you have about anything and everything from day to day life to mental health to the best place to buy a year’s supply of wool … not that I have done that at all.

5. When Abroad – Day to Day Life

This is possibly one of the hardest things to write about as there is no exact formula for the best experience for a year abroad as everyone is different (sound like a broken record). I personally picked a university with 9am-3pm classes because I do best with a solid routine that give me little time to twiddle my thumbs. Others may benefit from a less packed day – something to discuss with your degree tutor.

So anyway day to day life.

  • I find a solid routine helps me. Know when you are going to get up, go to bed, go to school/work (depending on your course), when you are going to have downtime (make sure you have it) etc. Even if its a rough idea it is still better than nothing.
  • Be productive each day. Even if you study for 5 minutes or do a load of washing or get your groceries. Do something you can look at at the end of the day and say, I did that today.
  • Don’t postpone things. If you’ve got a piece of homework due in a week or the floor needs sweeping, do them as soon as you can. You will feel better once you’ve done it and it’s one less thing to do if you have a bad day and need to stay in bed (been there and done that, no shame in it).
  • Allow treats and rewards. I found this really worked when I struggled with attendance in school. I told myself I would only get McDonalds last week if I made it into school everyday – I did it and got McDonalds on the Friday which made it that much better. The treats don’t have to be food, you could find a store you really like or allow yourself time to do one of your hobbies after finishing some work. It doesn’t have to be big but make it meaningful for you. Just don’t do them so often that you become reliant on them or that they lose their value.
  • Don’t be a hermit. I cannot stress this point enough although as an introvert it can be hard to find a natural balance between socialising and curling up at home. Being away from home is hard but being in another country can be terrifying especially with mental health. For a while you may have to fight the urge not to curl up for a month and acclimatize to everything. Its important to get out with friends from home, people you know already or people from your class. If you don’t feel up to it straight away that’s fine, start by messaging people so you can break the ice and ease into it. I have been here 2 months and I am still not fully out and socialising yet.
  • Take some ‘me’ time. As I mentioned before, you don’t have to be out socialising all the time, you will want to take time to study as well (if you are attending uni then you have to put some time aside). But its also important not to lose yourself in your studying or drain yourself emotionally by socialising non-stop. Take a bit of time to chill with your favourite TV show or a good book and your favourite drink. Plan in some times each week (I plan in an hour before I go to bed each day) where you don’t think about the stresses of the year abroad and focus on you for bit.

6. When Abroad – Coping Strategies

Okay, so obviously you won’t be able to physically bring all your coping strategies with you be it weight restrictions or physical restrictions (Unfortunately its not possible to bring my walk route in Dagenham to Seoul, that would be absurd). So like any new chapter in your life, adjustments have to be made.

When you land in your country of choice make sure you have a game plan. Know what you need to do in the first week and when it has to be done, have a plan of how to get from the airport to the place you are staying including costings and maps in print form. Having this stuff on hand will limit the stress of the unknown when you land.

Within the first month of landing and getting settled ensure you know where your nearest convenience store is ( can never be a bad thing), if walking helps map out a safe route you can walk and also note what you have to watch out for if parts are not overly safe (but please be careful), locate where you can restock on something if its colouring pencils or bubbles or anything else that will run out whilst away. Put into practice those coping strategies or put time aside to find new ones if your old ones aren’t doing the trick, you will thank yourself when you need them later.

Give yourself time. I cannot stress this enough. Uprooting for year and leaving family and friends behind is stressful and you will have times when you struggle. Accept them. No matter how well you are doing before the year abroad that can all go tits up (not definitely but be aware it can happen) so don’t beat yourself up if you have days when you struggle. Stay safe and keep in contact with key people and the support networks in place. You could surprise yourself and hey once you have done a year abroad with mental health problems and made it out the other end I don’t think there is anything you won’t be able to do (except go to Hogwarts, don’t think you can do that yet).

7. Challenge yourself

I think this can be one of the hardest things about life in general as the world can be scary. But its important to make baby steps to push yourself and you may even surprise yourself.
You are already challenging yourself by moving to another country for a year! But don’t stop there, slowly push yourself, starting small and then gradually getting bigger. Pick something you know you can do at home or something that you have to do (I find if I don’t have a choice in the matter I can overcome it so much easier). I started with a convenience store, then moved to a supermarket and then a coffee shop and now I can ask directions just about anywhere and drink in public.
Overcoming obstacles doesn’t happen overnight, you may not complete your challenge first time round, however the more you keep at it, the more likely you are to get it right the next time.

If you have any questions, comments or concerns feel free to leave a comment and I will get back to you as soon as you can. If you have a friend or child who is in a similar situation then please pass this along, I hope it can help someone the way the skills here have helped me.

~ Ruthie

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