Challenges with Studying Abroad – Mental Health

Claire Churchward
Exchange to VU Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Semester 2. 2015

When you start thinking about, or commit to going on exchange, you generally accept that there will be some days which are harder than others. Thanks to our friends, culture shock, stress, and exhaustion, there’s going to be a point where you question your life choices. Yet for some of us, other factors intensify the effect of these experiences, specifically mental health.  I know there are people who have elected not to go on their exchange because of their concerns about anxiety management and I’m certain that there are many others who have made the same call for similar reasons, and that’s completely fine. You need to do what’s right for you and if that’s cancelling or delaying your trip, do it without any shame. If you do decide to go and you feel comfortable with decision, go for it. However, when planning and embarking on your trip you should be careful to factor in your needs and concerns early on in the process.

Pick your destination and institution carefully

It’s tempting to pick your host country based on the scenery or its proximity to other places you wish to visit, but first and foremost you should be asking whether the culture and environment will be a good fit for you. Though it’s hard to know until you experience it, find somewhere you think you’ll be most comfortable. This doesn’t mean you have to pick somewhere boring or alike to home. It’s about structuring your experience to minimise risk without sanitising it. For example, you could pick a country where English or another language you’re comfortable speaking is the dominant tongue, removing stress from daily interactions. You could also try and co-ordinate a country or institution with friends going abroad at the same time, creating a support network during your time away. Take some time to work out what triggers you and create a way of managing those situations.

Have an outlet

When things get bad, and unfortunately, they probably will sometimes, it’s good to have a way of processing your thoughts and emotions. Rather than letting your concerns consume you, find a way of getting them out or expressing them. We’re all different and we all do this our own way, so take some time to work out your expressive style. For many people this is just talking. Grab the aforementioned friends you’ve got with you and hang out, or get on your computer to a Friend/family member/partner/cat your mum will set up skype for and chat. If this isn’t your thing, you could try journaling, exercise, art, meditation, or really anything that helps you clear your head. You should also make time for this regularly, and not just wait until you’re completely overwhelmed to release it.

Travel

It’s almost unheard of to discover an exchange student who has no interest in travelling beyond their host city. We all love to travel and it’s definitely a highlight of the experience. It can also be beneficial as a way of getting away from the stress of study abroad and just being a tourist for the weekend. Just like a quick holiday, hopefully you’ll come back with less stress and a new perspective.

It’s okay to not be okay

If you get overseas and you find it completely overwhelming, that’s totally okay. It’s a huge change and you’re processing it on top of a whole host of other things. Just know that there are support networks at ACU and your host uni through student associations, and counselling to help you get through the difficult patches. If after trying these services you still decide that you don’t want to continue, that’s also completely fine. There’s no shame in needing to come home. You still did an incredible thing by taking a chance and moving to the other side of the world, and you should be proud of yourself.