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My partner sat me down and said, “I think you’re experiencing depression.” That was when I realized I needed mental help.
I was in my third year as a teacher in South Korea, an experience that I had chosen to relieve the travel bug and give me some financial control. I had accomplished those goals and more! It should have been a perfect life. But I still didn’t feel happy. There was an extreme sadness that just wasn’t going away.
Long-term travel is not a cure for mental health issues. In fact, being abroad may actually amplify conditions such as depression or anxiety.
I’m grateful for my time abroad because it alerted me to my underlying conditions — but I really wish I had been more prepared before I put myself in a culturally different space.
I believe people with mental illness should absolutely travel. So to ensure a pre-existing condition does not interfere with your trip, follow these steps to get mental help before you go abroad:
1. Evaluate how long you’ll be gone.
The amount of time you spend abroad has an effect on your stress levels. Shorter traveling stints might be easier to manage than long-term adventures or living abroad.
Depending on your current mental state, you might not need to take as much care if you’re only traveling for a week or two. However, if you’re embarking on a study abroad program, a gap year, or teaching for a year internationally, culture shock has a greater chance of affecting you and exacerbating any pre-existing conditions you may have. Be prepared.
2. Consider getting a mental health evaluation.
A mental health evaluation is available to you in a variety of forms. Perhaps you speak with your existing doctor or therapist or you use a checklist to assess your current level of depression. Understanding where you are mentally before travel could be considered part of your pre-travel prep, along with vaccinations and updating your passport. Many of us put an expectation on our travel experience — if we’re already feeling low, we assume our time abroad will relieve those feelings. Even if travel does momentarily dispel them, those feelings may come back with a vengeance after returning home.
Getting mental help before your trip can only benefit you! There’s nothing to lose.
3. Do your research.
Explore the mental health options in the country you plan to visit. This is especially true for long-term travelers or students who are preparing to take courses abroad. If your situation requires access to mental health treatment, this research could help you choose which countries to visit.
If possible, get a referral from your home doctor for services internationally.
4. Have a plan.
If you have pre-existing conditions, talk with your mental health care provider or family practitioner about how to manage your mental health while traveling. In a foreign country, you might find it almost impossible to find quality, affordable mental health care in your native language. Craft a workable plan to deal with these issues before you leave. This could include identifying triggers you should avoid, understanding your symptoms and how to treat them, and identifying a support system in the country you’re visiting.
Individuals with substance abuse issues who are currently sober should also take into consideration the availability of Alcoholics Anonymous® or Narcotics Anonymous® meetings.
5. Check your medication.
If medication is a part of your treatment, check with the embassy of the country you’re visiting to be sure your prescriptions are legal. For example, some medications for ADHD in the States might be considered narcotics in other countries. Be sure to bring enough medication with you to last the duration of your stay. When traveling with medication, carry it in its original packaging with a letter from the physician who prescribed it.
6. Get insurance that covers evacuation.
Repatriation due to mental illness may not be as uncommon as it seems. According to the CDC, in the case of emergency evacuation of British Diplomats, 11% were “’nonphysical’” or “psychological in nature.” Additionally, in an American study on repatriation, students studying abroad were 23 times more likely to need to come home due to mental health conditions than corporate business travelers and expats.
Be aware that travel insurance varies greatly by your home location and individual policy. Do your research, and speak with a representative to make sure that you’ll get full coverage. For example, World Nomads, the internationally popular travel insurance provider, excludes coverage for “mental or nervous conditions.” The insurance monolith lays it out clearly:
“As per the policy wording, we won’t pay for costs arising in any way from: Any mental illness as defined by Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), whether or not the condition arises independently or is secondary to other medical conditions, including but not limited to: dementia, depression, anxiety, stress, or other mental or nervous conditions (except claims following assault as outlined under Section 1.5 – Clinical psychology (Explorer Plan); behavioural diagnoses; a drug or alcohol addiction; eating disorders.”
However, you may be able to process a claim if you are hospitalized due to your condition.
Mental illness is not a deterrent to traveling, but, like any other ailment, it requires its own preparations before jetting off. Covering your bases before you set out on your adventure will not only help you deal with any issues that arise, but it will help to bring you comfort while you’re abroad.
How does mental health impact your travel? Let me know in the comments
Additional Resources: http://studyabroad.uark.edu/health-and-safety/health-and-wellness/mental-health.php