In the second blog for our Staff Voices series, Polly Penter, Associate Director of Student Services, London, shares her experience with mental health and shares a few tips for students joining us on Arcadia programs.
I’ve lived with anxiety and depression for many years, following a personal trauma. Most people would never know this (apart from my tendency to share the fact, as it’s amazing how many people will respond with, “really?! Me too!”) Most of the time, it’s effectively dormant - my mental health is no worse than anyone else’s and sometimes it’s considerably better: I am naturally optimistic, outgoing and enthusiastic. When it’s bad, though, I find myself tossing and turning at night worrying about the tiniest thing: that comment I made to my colleague - did she take it the wrong way? Does she hate me? That email - did I accidentally send it to the wrong person? Should I get up and check? That mistake I made fifteen years ago - am I going to be retrospectively punished for it one day? I become guilt-ridden, over-sensitive, tearful, unmotivated. Life loses enjoyment and becomes merely a means of passing the time.
Anyone who suffers from mental health problems will know that they can be suddenly and absolutely overwhelming, sending you spiralling into a very deep hole with little warning. They will know that the symptoms are varied and considerable, and that sometimes they can leave you struggling through the day wearing a brave face or even completely incapacitate you. This could mean that those of us with mental - and indeed physical - health problems are often reluctant to leave our comfort zones, let alone travel halfway around the world for a prolonged period. But why should we miss out because our brains and bodies don’t always cooperate? I’ve studied abroad and travelled extensively for work, so here are a few tips if you, like me, are a wary adventurer:
- Don’t change your treatment! It sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed how many people fiddle around with their treatment just before or while they are abroad. If you take medication, keep taking it, unless your doctor suggests otherwise - check in advance if you can get a prescription in your destination country and how much you are allowed to bring with you, and ensure you will have enough for your time away.
- Seek support. If you were receiving therapy back home, see if you can access it abroad. Ask your Program Manager in advance if this can be arranged for you, and/or see if you’re able to Skype with your regular therapist while you’re away
- Don’t have too high expectations of yourself. You might get homesick - that’s not necessarily because of a pre-existing mental health problem, but a normal reaction to being away from home! You might experience culture shock - again, we cover this in Orientation because it’s really common! Don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’re not coping - I guarantee others will be feeling the same. You are awesome, but sadly none of us is invincible!
- Know your limits. There may be some things you know you won’t be able to do, or simply don’t want to do. Again, this is the same for everyone! If someone is scared of heights, for example, they probably won’t have a diagnosed “mental health problem”, but they still wouldn’t go on a trip to the top of the Shard! Don’t push yourself to do something that might trigger anxiety or other symptoms - trust yourself to know what is right for you.
- Plan ahead. As an anxious person, I always have a Plan B for certain situations, such as if I miss a connection. Being prepared makes me less likely to worry about it! Learn about the place you are going, so that things don’t come as a surprise. At the same time:
- Be prepared to be unprepared. This is probably the thing I find hardest to do! There will be times when things simply go wrong, or you come up against the unfamiliar or the unexpected - this is all part of studying and living abroad, and there will be times when you will have to embrace the unknown. One of the good things about travelling as part of a Study Abroad program is there will always be people you can ask for help. So:
- Build a support network. Arcadia is strongly committed to health and safety and providing you with the best experience possible, and you will be able to access really great support from staff, and they will be able to direct you to any more specialist support you might need. Make sure you save any Arcadia emergency numbers and contacts in your phone, and do approach staff directly if you feel you need a bit of support, however minor. On a similar note:
- Don’t forget the support networks you have at home - the joy of the 21st century is you can message, call or even video call your friends and family from pretty much anywhere in the world!
- Stick to a routine. Major changes to our routine can have a negative effect on mental health. Bring some familiar foods with you or arrange for your parents to send a care package (my students always crave that authentic mac ‘n’ cheese!) If you go running at home, find a park or running group while abroad. If you’re used to having a certain number of hours’ sleep, try not to drastically change this.
- Beware of FOMO. You’re abroad for a relatively short amount of time, so you can’t possibly do everything! One of the things that can hinder your enjoyment, and make the more anxious amongst us doubt our decisions and choices, is that feeling that you could/should be doing something else. If you have a choice, for example, between going to a show or a movie, pick one then STOP thinking about the other one! Try to live in the moment. Perhaps more importantly, it’s OK to have times when you do absolutely nothing at all - if you’re tired, stay in your room and watch Netflix.
Finally, live YOUR best life, whatever that might be, whatever its limitations, whatever its highs and lows, at this moment, right now.