Balancing Mental Health Abroad

Emily Radford
March 28, 2018

Mental health.

The stigma surrounding those two words is immense. It’s associated with violence, with destruction, with the concept of brokenness and insanity.

If you suffer from mental health struggles, you are not alone. I have a generalized anxiety disorder that which seeps into every aspect of my life. From school work, to relationships and self-care, my anxiety is always with me. Whether you have anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or the variety of other mental health disorders that exist, it’s going to affect you while you’re abroad, just as it does in everyday life.

Even if you haven’t struggled with mental health before going abroad, you may experience a variety of new feelings and emotions. After all, you are moving to another continent, surrounding yourself in an entirely new cultural context, sometimes speaking a different language, and trying to form fast bonds with strangers. It’s stressful, but beyond worth it.

Have no fear! Progressing through mental health abroad can be just as structured and manageable as it is for you in the United States. I’ve been through two drastically different study abroad programs, and I’m hoping to instill in you the most important lesson I’ve learned about my mental health: you deserve adequate mental health services while abroad.

Firstly, I want to discuss medication for mental health. As I’ve never been prescribed medication, I cannot speak to the accessibility of it abroad. But in general, it’s advised you bring enough medication to last you throughout your entire study abroad. It is possible to see a physician in your location of study abroad, but the ways through which medication is prescribed and provided may be drastically different than in the United States.

I manage my mental health via therapy. I’ve had two drastically different experiences in Quito, Ecuador and Amsterdam, Netherlands. I came into my fall study abroad in Quito being sure I wouldn’t need therapy. After two years of college therapy via my university, I was sure I was “fixed”. It was a cute thought while it lasted. Managing any kind of health takes constant work. It’s just as much effort and persistence to stay physically fit as it is to stay mentally fit. Halfway through my semester, I’d received enough street harassment to last me a lifetime. My backpack had been cut open on a bus just a few days earlier. My level of frustration was about to spill over, and I felt tears begin to sneak their way through my tear ducts as I walked to school. I needed help.

I went to one of the staff members at the IES Abroad center in Quito. She was very loving and understanding, yet was not a professional. Upon my insistence, she looked into getting me a therapist. The only professional therapist available cost too much for my budget, and I was expected to pay out of pocket. Instead I was referred to a professor at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. I went to two sessions with her, and realized she was neither a therapist nor helping my mental health. Having exhausted all my options, I managed my mental health in all the ways I knew how—from yoga to meditation, journaling and FaceTiming friends and family back home—I did it all. I even repeatedly brought up the topic of mental health to the Center Director, to no avail.

Although I did get through that experience and look back fondly upon my time in Quito, I learned a very important lesson:

If you suffer from mental health issues, it’s essential you address them immediately with your program staff. You must stress your need to seek a therapist that is covered by your health insurance. IES Abroad Center staff should be there to assist you in managing your culture shock and your continuing mental health issues. I think the program staff in IES Abroad Quito needs to evaluate if they can properly handle the mental health of their students and if they need extra support in the form of training, new team members and professionals to accommodate mental health needs.

This lesson being in the back of my mind, I ventured to Amsterdam ready to act. I would talk to everyone and anyone until I got myself a suitable licensed therapist. Luckily for me, the IES Abroad Amsterdam staff consists of the most lovely and helpful women I’ve ever met. They mentioned therapy and mental health assistance right from the start of orientation. With the help of one of the staff members, I was set up with a therapist within a few weeks. My therapist both pushes me and gives me tools to gain control over my mental health. She’s one of the best professionals I’ve seen in my life, and I would not have the quality of experience that I’m currently having if I didn’t have weekly sessions with her. A variety of my close friends also received therapists and are thriving from this extra support while abroad.

I am so grateful to have had these two contradicting experiences, so that I can pass along my knowledge to future and current IES Abroad travelers. The messages I want to get across are as followed:

-- There is no shame in getting mental health support while aboard! You are not alone, and you deserve to have your needs met.

-- Be proactive from the beginning and don’t be afraid to approach your program staff, they should be there to assist you!

-- You have international insurance thanks to CISI, and they do cover most medical costs. My therapy is fully covered after I reached the $100 deductible (IES Abroad Amsterdam staff also helped assist me in filling out all of the paper work needed to deal with insurance).

-- There was a lack in proactivity, accessibility, and staff knowledge in my program at IES Abroad Quito. The lack of mental health services, and lack of staff knowledge about mental health in general needs to be addressed. Students deserve to have their health needs fully met.

I want to instill a sense of normalcy in the phrase “mental health”. Caring for your mental health doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It’s a way to be healthy. To practice self-love. I hope I’ve helped you to understand that although going abroad while having a mental health disorder can seem daunting, getting proper mental health services has helped expand my sense of support I receive from both my community abroad and from myself. 


Note from IES Abroad: IES Abroad prides ourselves in our standards for health and safety in study abroad – including having mental health professionals available to students at all of our locations. We have already gotten in touch with our IES Abroad staff in Quito to discuss the events Emily reported above.

Emily Radford

<p>I’m studying psychology and gender studies at the University of Rochester. I just came back from studying in Quito, Ecuador for a semester and this spring semester I will be studying in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I feel most at home when I’m backpacking and climbing mountains, I’m a lover of pancakes and language, and I’m skilled at sleeping on all forms of public transport.</p>

Home University:
University of Rochester
Londonderry, NH
Gender Studies
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