Friday 1 March 2019

Managing Your Mental Health Abroad

Emily shares experiences, advice and tips on looking after your mental health whilst abroad.
- Emily Maybanks

Whether it’s going on a year or a semester abroad as part of your degree course, or moving abroad after graduating from University, there are several things that can impact on your mental health whilst abroad. There are also things that you can do to maintain and manage your mental health whilst you are abroad. 

I recently moved abroad to the very cold city of Hohhot in China’s Inner Mongolia to take up a position as an English Teacher with Education First (EF). Since moving here, I have experienced challenges for my mental health, but I have also started to learn some strategies to cope with tougher days. 

Jet Lag 
Before moving to Hohhot, jet lag was something I had never experienced. In the first few days, I was so jet lagged and it seriously impacted on my mental health because my sleeping pattern had been completely thrown off course and I was feeling emotional and drained every day, whilst also trying to take in a new environment and lots of information at work. By the end of my first week, I was so exhausted and I was ill. What I took away from this was that I should have asked for more time to rest after the long journey. 

Culture Shock and Homesickness
Whether you move to somewhere in Europe, America or somewhere like Asia, culture shock is a thing! (The biggest culture shock I had in my first few hours in China was the toilet being a hole in the floor). With culture shock, it’s important to give yourself time to become acclimatised with your new country’s culture and way of life. Sometimes, culture shock can make you feel very homesick – which is a normal part of moving abroad – but you can always find some things which are very similar to back home. Also, pack things like home comforts in your luggage. I really wish that I’d packed some Crème Eggs… 

Try New Things and Explore
One way to maintain mental health and alleviate homesickness (which is completely natural and normal), is to get out and try new things in your new city. Go to a restaurant and eat some new food, or just go for a walk around. You’ll find that there’s so much to see and do. 

Reward Yourself 
Moving abroad is a big deal for anyone. Moving abroad with a mental health difficulty is an even bigger deal! Things which seem quite simple and normal back home such as going to the supermarket or getting a taxi are much more difficult and anxiety-inducing when you’re in a new place. Telling yourself stuff like “good job” when you do something difficult is important! 

Maintain Contact with Family and Friends at Home 
Moving abroad means leaving behind lots of people you love dearly. However, nowadays, social media, phones and apps like Skype and FaceTime make it a lot easier to keep in touch with your friends and family back at home. It is vital to maintain your support network at home so you can speak to them when you need to. Personally, I think I speak to my Mum more now I’ve moved to China that I did when I was living at home. 

Make New Friends 
This might seem like a contrast to my previous point, but meeting new people and making friends in your new country is equally, if not more, important that keeping in touch with friends and family at home. If you’re studying abroad, try joining a society or a club. When I studied abroad in Geneva for my year abroad, I joined a creative writing club which was a good way to meet people with the same interest as me. In China, it has been easier to make new friends as I work with lots of people. However, I do know that it is not always easy to make new friends when you move abroad. As long as you try, that’s what counts! 

Keep Up with Hobbies or Try Doing Something New
One of my passions is writing and I’ve been able to write a lot since arriving in China which has helped me by doing something I love, as well as given me something to talk about to my new colleagues and friends. Moving abroad is also a great opportunity to take up something new. Try learning a new language, taking up a sport – anything! Having a hobby and something you enjoy is important in maintaining mental health and alleviating loneliness and isolation abroad. Use your new surroundings and city as a chance to get creative – maybe start a journal or a blog (this is also a great way to keep in touch with friends and family at home). 

There is No Shame in Asking for Help
This is something I have certainly learnt in the few weeks that I have been in China – that it is okay and there is certainly no shame in reaching out for help and support. I count myself incredibly fortunate that I have the most supportive group of colleagues and very understanding managers and there have already been a few times where I’ve had to ask for support – emotional, physical and even financial. It might feel embarrassing and hard to do, but you may be surprised just who might be able to completely empathise with how you feel and will support you. 

To sum up, moving abroad can affect your mental health in so many ways. It’s important to find strategies to enable you to cope, as well as to develop and maintain a strong support network. Most importantly, have as much fun as possible! 

For more information, advice and resources on looking after your wellbeing during your year abroad, click here

My name is Emily (Em). Last summer, I graduated from Swansea University with my BA degree in Modern Languages, Translation & Interpreting; I was also passionate about and dedicated to Swansea Student Media and the University students’ newspaper – Waterfront. At the beginning of 2019, I moved to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia in China to work as an English Teacher with Education First (EF). I blog for Student Minds because I experienced mental health issues as a student throughout my time at University and I also experience mental health difficulties now as a graduate; as well as other health issues, and I support friends who also have mental health difficulties. I am a passionate writer and writing has been important in my mental health experiences – both in helping me to explore and to cope with my own mental health and experiences, as well as sharing my story in order to help and inspire others.

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