The following blog post was contributed by an AIFS alum who has requested to remain anonymous.
*My experiences are unique to me, please consider your own circumstances when choosing whether studying abroad is right for you.
Studying abroad with a mental health condition can seem like a daunting experience and should be considered with gravity. However it is possible to participate in study abroad programs and promote your well-being. I have had success participating in 5 different academic related trips through extensive preparations, perseverance, resilience, and a lot of self-awareness. Moments where I was out in the world became moments where I felt most like myself. With each trip, traveling and finding a future which exposed me to the international community became more of a priority.
My longest trip to date has been my semester in France with AIFS; this exchange has been one of the most healing and purposeful moments of my life.
I’ve struggled with mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression for much of high school and college. Looking for a way to heal, I’ve tried different medications and implemented different self-care strategies. Part of the recovery process for me included focusing on my goals for myself as a person, which included fulfilling those goals. Studying abroad has always been one of my dreams; I have a lifelong love for learning about how people live and traveling could expose me to other cultures.
Before going abroad I did extensive research into programs to find the right fit for me. I consulted with family, friends, academic advisors, doctors, therapists, and different off-campus coordinating organizations. I quickly became intrigued by all-inclusive programs because I thought that they could help reduce the stress associated with trip planning; as a student with a full workload and a mental health condition I had enough to worry about already and having an all-inclusive study abroad program helped to ease the planning of my experience. It was important for me to choose a program I felt comfortable with and with which I could establish rapport. The staff at AIFS were personable at every part of the process from when I started my application to when I got on my flight to come home at the end. The support which I got from AIFS helped create a sense of security for me to enjoy my experience to the fullest.
When going abroad you bring your baggage with you, literally and figuratively. There are unique stresses faced by exchange and international students, and additional ones when combined with preexisting mental health conditions. I found it important to have good support systems both at home and abroad. As a social butterfly, it was necessary to my well-being to have people around me to share experiences with. I was able to establish a close friend group with whom I traveled and went to classes with. These relationships have grown into life-long friendships with whom I communicate regularly.
During my time abroad I practiced a great sense of mindfulness; journaling helped me to channel and organize my emotions and reflections. I tried to continue old habits when I could but also adopted new ones which were more culturally specific; such as running, yoga, hiking, rock-climbing and sightseeing.
My time abroad restored my sense of life by stimulating all of my senses and expanding them through a series of emotional highs and lows. I tried to immerse myself in my experiences and remain open minded; I tried to keep a positive outlook. During the lows of my exchange I would remind myself that I had romanticized this moment for so long and how I was finally living it, and practiced gratitude in those moments. Through my experiences abroad I have been able to gain a greater sense of direction within my life. My time studying abroad was a time for me to focus on well-being and my needs to a capacity which I had never reached before. Practicing mindfulness helped me become better at utilizing self-care strategies to improve my mental health.