Mental illness abroad

The truth is, you’re not always going to be happy, no matter where you are. My program was 130 days total, just around 4 months. There were days when I wanted to stay in Australia forever, but there were also days when I wanted to board the next flight back home.

The time difference between Australia and my hometown in Colorado is 16 hours, before Daylight Savings Time. Most of my emotional breakdowns happened when everyone I knew was fast asleep. I felt an overwhelming amount of guilt if I woke them up, so I was forced to suffer alone. I wasn’t comfortable opening up to anyone here, I had not reached that level of confidence with anyone. When you are outside of the country alone, you have to be prepared to solve issues with little to no guidance from the people that you trust the most. This was the harshest reality I had to face when I was studying abroad in Tasmania.

Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. If you suffer from a mental illness such as anxiety and depression, those things don’t just go away because you’re on “vacation.” Especially if you’re abroad for a long period of time, those emotions will always rise when you’re having a bad day, and that’s okay. It’s better to be mindful of this before you travel, so you can better prepare for it when your emotions get the best of you.

I knew things weren’t going to be 100% perfect. I guess I just didn’t know the full extent on how hard it is having a breakdown when you’re thousands of miles away from home. Living with a mental illness is already hard enough as it is. When I am living at home, I know I have my family and my friends to turn to, but reaching out is still a difficult task. Being in a different continent, on a different time zone further complicates things and sometimes it was unbearable. I wanted to talk to my best friends about it, but couldn’t because they were either asleep, at school, or working. By the time it was a good time to reach them, I had gone through an episode all alone.

A big advice that I have is to reach out to your campus resources. If you are studying in a different country, chances are your University will have a student outreach group. They are able to provide you with counseling and advisors to help you along your journey. I was pleasantly surprised when the University of Tasmania sent me emails about a new counseling program they started this year and it served as a reminder that if I needed to talk to someone, I wasn’t alone.

If you are backpacking or traveling without studying, it is important to think about what you can do if you have an emotional breakdown while you’re away. Many people are able to go months without having a panic attack or feeling depressed. You need to be able to be honest with yourself and if you know you have a history of mental illness, think about what you will do if you have an anxiety or panic attack while you’re away. Some ideas on what you can do is talk to your loved ones and ask them if it would be okay if you could call them whenever you need to, this includes in the middle of the night. You could also research local counseling offices and schedule appointments ahead of time if counseling is something important that you need in your life.

Some people can go a long time without having a bad day. Others know how to take control of their anxiety and depression very well but it’s okay if you don’t know how. Mental illness is very scary and in some countries, it’s still a taboo thing to talk about. Be mindful of this when traveling and do research before departing to a new destination if counseling or seeking resources for mental illness is something you’d be interested in.

Having a mental illness should never impede you from traveling. Although it’s a scary thought to think about, being aware and prepared for the road ahead is what’s most important. I’m not close to my family whatsoever but I found myself really missing them in my time away. I can’t imagine what it must be like for those that are family-oriented. I have friends in Tasmania that talk to their family practically every day and they still suffer from homesickness. I must admit that I never thought I would get home sick until I realized that I needed to talk to someone but couldn’t reach out because of the distance.

Being away from home has the potential to heighten your anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. You have to find ways to keep yourself motivated and happy, because you realize quickly that no one here is going to do that for you. While you’re abroad, the biggest piece of advice is to find something that makes you happy. Whether that’s taking an interesting class, trying out a new sport, or making a ton of new friends, these things have the potential to make your experience abroad all the more better. When you’re feeling lonely or depressed, it gets better by having at least one thing to turn to for happiness.

OIE Note

Students can find more information about mental health abroad and resources offered by DU (including International SOS) in the Study Abroad Handbook under Health & Safety.

Chelsea Hernandez


Chelsea Hernandez is currently a Senior studying Journalism and Criminology. She is studying abroad in Tasmania, Australia for the Fall Quarter of 2018. Chelsea is hoping learn about a variety of cultures, not just the Tasmanian one, as many of her peers abroad are from different countries all over the world. After graduation this upcoming Spring, she hopes to gain more experience in Journalism and land an internship somewhere in Denver.

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