Managing Mental Illness While Abroad

by Kathryn Jones on February 26, 2018

As a person who’s dealt with mental illness for most of my formative years, deciding to study abroad was one of the biggest and scariest decisions of my life.

Around 10th grade, my mental health was at an all-time low. I was tired of living as a captive to my own brain, so I begrudgingly decided to seek counseling. Being diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder with symptoms of depression came as both a relief and daunting news. It finally gave me a name to what I was facing, assuring me that I wasn’t just being melodramatic. But by giving it a name, it was suddenly real.

After about a year of counseling, I was discharged and told to keep up the good work. Flying through a relatively unstressful senior year, I abruptly hit a wall of stress as I headed to college. Having never switched school districts or houses before, moving out of New York to Pennsylvania was a big decision in itself.

I had never been outside of America, and I hadn’t been on a plane since I was 7. What if I hated my classes? What if I got lost in the underground and couldn’t find my way back?

- Kathryn Jones

When I applied to FYSAE, I did it as a test. If I got in, I told myself that it would be good to push myself out of my comfort zone to see how I would cope with my mental illness while being surrounded by the unfamiliar. I ended up getting into the program, and my anxiety started simmering.

As my trip abroad approached, that simmer turned into a boil. I was so scared. I had never been outside of America, and I hadn’t been on a plane since I was 7. What if I hated my classes? What if I got lost in the underground and couldn’t find my way back? What if no one in the program wanted to be my friend or hang out with me? All these thoughts swirled in my head. I felt suffocated.

When I arrived in London, having only gotten 20 minutes of sleep on the 7-hour plane ride, I was too sleepy to be anxious. The first day was easy. The newness of it and the contagious excitement of the group made it feel more like a vacation than moving.

Gradually, my anxiety started to weigh me down again: The 40-minute commute to school, the unfamiliarity of being in a big city, longer class times, piles of school work, missing my friends and my family— all of these factors propelled my disorder.

I decided it was time to seek help again, and the lovely staff at Arcadia in London happily pointed me in the right direction. Special thanks to Sara Sayeg, a student services officer, who kindly answered my multitude of questions about setting up an appointment.

Arcadia recommends one psychologist and one psychiatrist for those seeking mental health services through GeoBlue, the health insurance we get as students abroad. To make an appointment with the psychologist, all I had to do was email her and ask! It was easy, and her speedy response relieved my anxiety over setting up the appointment. I got in the next week and have been going every week since. An additional bonus is, through GeoBlue, all of my appointments are free.

Currently, I am learning to cope with my anxiety through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). According to National Health Service, CBT is “a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.” This process for me includes keeping a thought record. By naming the negative feelings and writing down the thoughts surrounding the situation, you work with your therapist to break down the bigger problems into smaller, more manageable chunks. Through this, you work to change your thoughts, which will improve your overall mental state.

Studying abroad at Arcadia is so accessible, and I hope that anyone who wants to get out and explore the world through their wonderful programs will, even those like me grappling with the inhibiting effects of mental illness. With all the wonderful and free resources for mental health that Arcadia has abroad, you will always have somewhere to turn if the change has taken a toll on you. Utilizing these resources is quick, easy, and absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.