While conversations and resources regarding mental health have become more common and accessible on campus, mental health challenges still remain an unspoken aspect of the student study abroad experience.
In an attempt to facilitate conversation about how studying abroad may impact one’s mental health, the Center for Global and Intercultural Study, Active Minds and International Programs in Engineering partnered to form a panel discussion on Wednesday night in hopes to increase pre-departure awareness on this underrecognized topic.
The event was held in the Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery and attended by approximately 25 students hoping to go abroad, as well as various faculty supporting their travels.
Business sophomore Caleigh Lin, the vice president of Active Minds and one of the event’s organizers, explained the disparity between mental health resources on campus and abroad.
She said CGIS felt the same way and reached out to Active Minds to collaborate on their shared concern in an effort to raise more awareness on the issue.
Lin said mental health is often neglected when students are considering whether they should go abroad.
“(It is) not often looked at or thought about when thinking about traveling, even though it’s very important and impacts a lot of people in different ways, such as physical disabilities, mental disorders, stress, anxiety, etc,” she said.
Despite this, she hoped the panel helped students gain a better understanding of the resources available for students when they are abroad.
Callie Rouse, the health and safety assistant from CGIS, introduced the event and cited a 2017 report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health that about 40 percent of students have reported experiencing anxiety or depression at the University. The University has also released data on mental health, stating that 1 out of every 5 people deal with some form of mental illness.
While these rates are not uncommon nationwide, Rouse noted they are suitable grounds for increased conversation that manifests itself in the broadest of terms, not just in how mental health affects students on a daily basis on campus.
Rouse discussed the misconceptions about study abroad programs, saying students feel they will not suffer from the same issues they experience at home while abroad.
“There can sometimes be a false conception about study abroad as a magical cure, that because you have moved away from home and the situations at home that maybe things will get better and those problems aren’t real because you are far away from them, but you bring them with you, unfortunately,” she said.
In reality, Rouse explained while studying abroad is very exciting, it tends to not be the picture-perfect experience students may have been eagerly anticipating. In fact, it can exacerbate existing mental health issues.
“It can create a lot of new, unique pressures for students. Not only are you in a new city and a new country, but you are dealing with different laws, languages, diets, cultural norms, expectations, living situations,” she said.
Furthermore, Rouse explains resources to address one’s mental health issues, at least temporarily, may be limited in foreign countries. This is often something that many people do not consider when contemplating if they should go abroad and what country and program are best for them.
She stated one of the biggest obstacles to bettering mental health while abroad is due to varying cultural attitudes on the subject. Sometimes medications are not accessible in certain countries either because they do not exist or are not legal.
Rouse later introduced the six panelists, all of whom have spent extended periods of time studying abroad, whether for the summer, semester or entire school year.
They all agreed with Rouse’s descriptions of dealing with mental health issues while abroad. Specifically, the students all shared experiences about how their individual concerns about finances impacted their mental health while abroad.
Wormly suggested it is best to talk to an adviser or another student who traveled through the same program to avoid running into problems with unforeseen costs.
Students also face cultural differences while studying abroad, which can greatly affect mental health. LSA senior Kayla McKinney, who studied abroad in Spain, said she often felt culturally isolated because of her race. She explained because she was an African-American woman in a predominately light-skinned nation, she frequently experienced racist microaggressions. She said her body was constantly being examined because she did not look like everyone else; she was often hypersexualized solely because of her race, explaining she experienced catcalling on a daily basis.
Furthermore, people would often approach her and pet her hair without her consent. She explained there were “a lot of (instances) with people not understanding my culture and not being respectful of it.” Overall, these microaggressions made her feel culturally isolated and exacerbated her mental health issues in a way that she did not anticipate.
LSA sophomore Elizabeth Einig studied abroad last summer and related to the experiences of McKinney. She recognized while different countries may have potentially intense cultural differences, it is so important to take care of oneself.