Alice Lynch addresses an important concern for travellers worldwide that’s rarely talked about…
With the holidays fast approaching, many of us will be planning to escape the British ‘summertime’ to seek adventure, whether it’s travelling, studying abroad, or that long-awaited gap year for soon-to-be graduates. Any of these can expose you to new adventures and cultures, but also to lessons that give you new perspectives on life, even after returning home. It’s something that is extremely beneficial to the personal development of any individual. However, managing your mental health while travelling, whether or not you have a history of anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions, is something every person should think about before going abroad.
Mental health problems affect roughly one in four of the British population in any given year. With that in mind, there’s a good chance that a few of us who experience mental health problems will be jetting off in the coming summer months. Mental health conditions, while they should never diminish the opportunity for life-changing experiences, can sometimes complicate matters.
Even without a prior history of poor mental health, factors such as travel stress, mood changes, anxiety and other mental health concerns can unexpectedly affect you and potentially disrupt your trip. International travel can be a stressful experience. It involves separation from family and familiar support systems, and the impact of foreign cultures and languages, as well as unfamiliar threats to health and safety. Such conditions can exacerbate existing issues. For some individuals with a predisposition towards a mental health disorder, it may emerge for the first time during travel. Mental health issues are among the leading causes of ill-health among travellers and ‘psychiatric emergency’ is one of the most common medical reasons for air evacuation.
There are many recognised mental illnesses – the NHS lists around forty – and it’s common for people to travel with one disorder or another. Whether it’s a matter of anxiety, agoraphobia, depression or schizophrenia, it’s important to remember that, with the right planning in place, travelling with mental health problems is perfectly manageable. Here are a few points to think about before you set off…
If you take prescribed medication, it’s crucial that you have a sufficient supply. Every country will have a different medical system and the best approach is to start doing your research early. In some countries, your prescribed medication might be banned, unavailable or available under a different name. Gather as much information about your medication as possible, including any brand names it could appear on under. There are online tools to help you do this and your GP will also be able to provide any information you need.
Make sure you have a support network in place. It’s important to have someone to talk to and check in with every now and then. If you’re studying abroad, get in touch with the wellbeing support service at your university, or its equivalent. If they don’t have the right support for you, they should be able to direct you to somewhere that does. Keep trying – you deserve to get the support that you need to study. It’s also a good idea to speak to a counsellor, health worker, mentor or staff member before you leave the UK to help plan how you’re going to deal with any issues you might come up against.
Try to establish a support system in your time zone; whether you travel with friends or not, bonds form quickly by spending so much time with others in the same environment. If you are staying with a family or roommate in the host country, communicate with them honestly about your needs before you arrive. Find someone you can trust to understand your triggers, and teach that person how to support you if they see any changes in your health or behaviours.
Make sure you read your travel insurance thoroughly and check the small print – many agencies require you to declare any mental health conditions you have and failing to do so could invalidate the rest of your policy. Further information on travel insurance and other safety considerations can be found on the FCO’s Know Before You Go pages.
If you do experience difficulties with mental health issues abroad, and you’re struggling to cope, the nearest British Embassy, high commission or consulate can often offer help. Knowing what the Foreign Office can and can’t do for you could make all the difference. An excellent place to start is the Foreign Office’s travel advice page, which has plenty of information on this as well as a travel checklist.
Mental health shouldn’t be treated differently to any other health matter. Remember that you’re entitled to ask for help if you need it. Would a student seeking help for a medical condition such as asthma or hearing problems feel ashamed or embarrassed? Then why should you? Working, studying or travelling in an unfamiliar country is challenging, but it is also an experience you will never forget. Travelling with a mental health condition does require some extra planning, but the rewards – culturally and personally – are fantastic.