Mental Health and My Study Abroad Journey

April 3, 2017

Editors Note: Studying abroad is an incredible but challenging experience for participants.  It compels us to confront our values, our beliefs and the way we live our lives.  API knows that having a community of support is invaluable when making major life transitions.

Participants are asked to share any medical conditions that may affect the study abroad experience prior to their departure; in doing so, API has the ability to advise them about the resources (or lack thereof) that are available on-site and provide extra assistance/guidance as needed.  API’s on-site coordinators and directors are available to support students who face medical or emergency situations 24/7, and they have established networks of on-site counselors, doctors, and hospitals that can be used by students. To ensure access to ongoing care, our health insurance plan provides limited coverage for treatment of pre-existing conditions, including up to $1,500 of coverage for pre-existing mental health conditions.  This coverage means that students who wish to continue to seek professional support while abroad have the means to do so.

The following essay comes from student blogger, Sandra Mercer. Sandra is from Westfield State University and is an Elementary Education Major currently studying in Galway, Ireland

At the end of January I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my last release from outpatient psychiatric care. The day I landed in Ireland was the one-year anniversary of my last release from inpatient psychiatric care.

But I’ll back up a little bit.

I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression my sophomore year of high school. Over the course of the next few years, a tumultuous road to recovery began. It would take me far too long to write all about my mental health journey in detail in this one blog post, so luckily you can read all about it here.

The above is a link to my Coping: This is Who We Are piece on Dear Hope, a website that centers on mental health advocacy through creative work. Writing has always been something that I use to cope. In even my darkest of times, writing is a way that I can express how I am feeling and release some of those negative thoughts in a positive way. By using my own personal creative outlet to write this piece, it allowed me to share my story in a way that helped me to truly wrap my head around everything that I’d been through. Dear Hope gave me a platform to use that positive outlet and share it with others, and I highly recommend that you check out their site!

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

I’ve wanted to study abroad since high school, and Ireland was always my first choice. I created this plan in my head that I would run off to the Emerald Isle the spring semester of my sophomore year, around the middle of my college experience, and have the time of my life. It made perfect sense: I could finish up my core classes on the Isle, return to my home university the following fall after a summer of working to make back all the money I’d spent on my adventures across the ocean, and fall back into the routine of my regimented education track that September.

Well, life got in the way.

Like I detail in my Dear Hope piece, I was hospitalized for my declining mental health twice my sophomore year of college, making studying abroad nearly impossible. I just wasn’t stable enough to fly across the world and live on my own in a new country for five months.

I was devastated.

During spring of my sophomore year of college (the time when I previously had wanted to study abroad), a few months after my release from the hospital for the second time, I decided to make Ireland a reality for the following Spring. I knew that studying abroad was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and junior year would be my absolute last opportunity to do so.

So I made it happen.

I worked three jobs that summer to save up, spent hours in the international affairs office at my school, asked questions, did research, and finally got the letter I’d been waiting for: my acceptance to NUIG (National University of Ireland, Galway).

And I was terrified.

I was worried that I had made a mistake. There’s no way that I can do this, I told myself time and time again. I’m not stable enough. I don’t have all my medications figured out yet. I need to see my therapist still. I can’t be away from everyone I love for that long.

All of those negative thoughts were pounding in my head on a continuous loop, everything that I promised myself I wouldn’t let get in the way of me studying abroad was suddenly getting in the way of me studying abroad.

But I was so close. And I couldn’t let it slip through my fingers again.

So, I did it.

Though those negative, self-deprecating thoughts were (and still are, sometimes) always there, I added in positive ones as well. They were almost like mantras.

You are strong for even trying. You have worked so hard to get here. Everything will get figured out. This will be worth all the struggle.

And it has been.

I can’t negate the fact that this has been a huge adjustment for me. I have cried and wished to hop on a plane and come home. I’ve doubted myself, isolated myself, and dragged myself out of bed to go to class only to sit there in a fog.

But I’ve also laughed a lot. And met new people. And tried new things. And seen new places. And took more pictures (even pictures with myself in them, how about that?). And really lived.

Mental illness does not go away.

It took me years to realize this, and although I know it now, it is still a very difficult thing to accept. It’s frustrating. It’s unfair. It’s devastating.

I will always be mentally ill. I will always have depression. I will always have anxiety. I can’t make those things go away.

Fleeing the country will not make those things go away.

Staying complacent won’t either, though.

Studying abroad, though difficult when you struggle with mental illness, is one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself. Is it for everyone? Of course not. We are all different, and we all struggle in different ways. For me, though, taking this leap was something that I wanted to do for myself, and something that I needed to do for myself. I was tired of letting my mental health issues hinder me; I was tired of letting myself be scared of doing things that would be difficult for me.

So, I did it.

And I am so happy that I did.

Until next time, friends. Sláinte!


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