Mental health is a complex topic, with many underlying factors as well as varying effects on one’s life. Even if you’ve never had mental health concerns before, that can change while you’re abroad. Anxiety, depression, mood swings, and more can be brought on or exacerbated by not only culture shock, but also time zone changes and jet lag, separation from your family and friends, spending time alone, etc. It is important to remember that your mental health is just as important as your physical health - pay close attention to it while studying abroad! Recognizing that you’re struggling is the first step in taking care of yourself. Symptoms can present themselves in the form of increased irritability, heightened fear, homesickness, withdrawal, changes in eating habits, changes in sleep (increase or decrease), and more.
It is also important to understand that studying abroad does not mean taking a vacation from your mental health. You are the same person abroad - with the same background, life experiences, and health conditions - that you are in the U.S, and you are likely to face the same mental health concerns there that you do at home. Acknowledging this and planning for it in advance is the best thing you can do to be mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared for your program. This being said, we encourage you not to imagine a worst case scenario taking place while you’re abroad. Chances are that while yes, you may experience some mental health struggles, you will also have an amazing time and look back on your study abroad experience with fond memories.
While abroad, you will be separated from your family, friends, typical daily routine, the cultural norms you are used to, and essentially, all that is familiar to you. In your new environment, you will constantly be processing the differences and nuances of an unfamiliar culture. Trying to adapt to a new routine, new norms, and perhaps also a new language may leave you feeling overwhelmed and somewhat disoriented. This feeling is commonly referred to as “culture shock”.
The degree to which culture shock is experienced varies from person to person. If you have a pre-existing mental health condition, culture shock could potentially trigger a mental health crisis and/or exacerbate your symptoms. However, anyone can experience culture shock, regardless of their program location, length, or how prepared they feel to study abroad. To mitigate the severity of this phase, there are a few things you can do:
- Learn: The more you learn about your host country, the more prepared you will feel adjusting to its culture, customs, and language. Doing a bit of research about your destination prior to leaving the U.S. - whether via books, articles, your program’s website, student vlogs on YouTube, etc. - can take a bit of “shock” out of the culture shock you may experience once there. Resources created by other students may be of particular help in giving you an idea of what to expect.
- Plan: Having a plan in place to protect your mental health and wellbeing before you go abroad is one of the best things you can do to prepare. Will you have a support system back home you can rely on? If so, who, and how often will you contact them? Is there a certain self-care practice you already do that you can take with you abroad, such as daily walks or journaling? How will you be able to prioritize it in your new daily routine? Thinking about these things in advance will help you feel less overwhelmed once you’re abroad, so that you can save your energy for settling in, resting, and exploring.
- Reflect: Speaking of journaling, even if it’s not a normal practice of yours here in the U.S., consistent reflection throughout your time abroad will likely help you process your experience. Down the road, it will also help you remember how you felt in a specific moment and hopefully, show how much you’ve grown. Certain journaling prompts can help you adjust to your host culture (e.g. “What do you find most different about Gainesville and where you’re currently living?”), while others can help you keep a positive outlook during stressful times (e.g. “What is something you’ve already accomplished during this experience that you’re proud of?”) You may not even need prompts; often, you will be experiencing so much and having so many thoughts and feelings that the words will flow out naturally. If you don’t want to keep a physical journal, blogging or vlogging about your experience are great alternatives.
- Engage: Making friends - we know, it’s easier said than done. However, are you truly saying yes to opportunities that present themselves abroad? Does your host university have a “buddy program” or something similar that you can be a part of? Are you housed in the same building as other students (international or not)? Perhaps there are local organizations that align with your hobbies, or upcoming events that will get you out-and-about. Making new friends may seem intimidating, but try to remember that there are a lot of other students in the same boat as you. Try being the brave one, who invites a group out to dinner or strikes up a conversation with someone in class!
We hope some of these strategies can help you adjust to your time abroad, no matter how long you’re spending there. We also want to point out that there is a process called Reverse Culture Shock, which you will likely experience upon returning to the U.S. after your program. To learn more about this and how to successfully re-adjust, visit our Study Abroad Alumni webpage. The graph below also provides a basic overview of the Culture Shock and Reverse Culture Shock processes.
In addition to culture shock, you may also experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) while abroad. Also known as the "Winter Blues" or "Winter Depression", this condition is more prevalent in countries where the amount of daylight is significantly shortened during winter months, and/or where winter temperatures are extremely low. This may result in you spending more time inside, in addition to it getting dark earlier. Symptoms of SAD include feeling sad or depressed, losing interest and enjoyment in activities, a change in appetite, a change in sleeping patterns, feeling sluggish or agitated, low energy or mood, difficulty concentrating, and social withdrawal. Some people experience SAD more significantly than others. If you believe you may be prone to SAD, we encourage you to speak to a medical professional and/or mental health counselor sooner rather than later. This is particularly important if you are studying abroad during the Fall (Winter) semester, in a country with drastically different weather than you're used to. Ways to cope with SAD include exercise, eating healthy, increasing your vitamin D intake, light therapy (via windows, lamps), engaging with friends, and more.
Mental Health Abroad Workshop
Each Fall and Spring semester, UF Study Abroad and the UF Counseling & Wellness Center (CWC) co-host a mental health workshop for outgoing study abroad students. Led by a CWC professional, this workshop outlines mental health strategies and considerations for students going abroad, regardless of their existing needs (or lack thereof). This session will help students prepare for the unique challenges and stressors they may experience abroad. If you are participating in an upcoming study abroad program, you will be invited to this event in due time. Until then, you are welcome to reach out to Jess Mercier at email@example.com with any questions.
UF Counseling & Wellness Center
Prior to departing the U.S., consider speaking with the UF Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC) about how you’re feeling and any concerns you may have. The CWC offers both short- and long-term counseling services, including virtual counseling which allows UF students to meet with a CWC provider to focus on specific, manageable goals. The CWC also offers self-assessment tools such as SilverCloud and ULifeline, both free of charge for UF students.
Please note that unfortunately, due to Florida laws, UF students cannot utilize CWC services such as counseling while abroad. However, the CWC's 24/7 crisis phone line is available to all UF students, regardless of location, in the event of an emergency. This crisis line can be reached at +1-352-392-1575.
Most students participating in a UF Sponsored or UF Exchange program will be automatically enrolled in our CISI health insurance plan. For those students, our CISI policy outlines how to access mental health services in-country; see page one under “How do I locate a medical provider and/or hospital?” Students participating in a Sponsored or Exchange program with a different health insurance plan are encouraged to contact their Study Abroad Advisor about coverage options. Students participating in a Non-UF program should speak directly with their program provider about the mental health services available on-site.
UF Disability Resource Center
If you have an existing mental health condition that may require assistance and/or accommodations while you are abroad, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, PTSD, or bipolar disorder, please refer to our Students with Disabilities webpage for more information. Note that you are encouraged but in no way required to share this mental health condition with your Study Abroad Advisor and/or Program Director. However, if you do choose to disclose, it will help these people support you and direct you to the right resources. One resource in particular that you can reference now is Mobility International USA, which has many articles and testimonials about studying abroad as someone with a mental health condition.
In addition to the information provided above, we hope that some of the below resources can be helpful or reassuring to you in your pursuit of study abroad. Also remember that you can always reach out to our office, the CWC, and/or the DRC with questions or concerns.
- UF Mindfulness
- Koru Mindfulness Courses
- Coping with Culture Shock (ISEP)
- Coping with Culture Shock (StudyCorgi)
- Mental Wellness Abroad Booklet (USF)
- Real World Experiences in Mental Health (MIUSA)
- United for Global Health: Mental Health Support
- Studying Abroad with a Mental Illness (NPR)
- Studying in Ireland with Bipolar Disorder (MIUSA)
- How to Deal with Depression While Studying Abroad (GoOverseas)
- 5 Tips for Studying Abroad with a Mental Illness (USAC)
- Managing Mental Health While Abroad (Diversity Abroad)
- Taking Care of Your Mental Health Abroad (PassionPassport)
- Mental Health & Self-Care: Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales (GoAbroad)
- VIDEO: Mental Health Abroad Panel (UW-Stout)
- VIDEO: “It’s Okay” | 2015 Film Festival Winner (IESAbroad)