I have depression. There, I said it, the thing nobody wants to talk about. All week I’ve been wracking my brain for the best topic to write about—the gorgeous hikes? The amazing food?—but I came to the same conclusion every time: that what I say should be what I wish I had heard before I decided to go to school in an entirely new country. This post will be deeply personal, and perhaps it resonates with you because these days depression seems to be everywhere, especially in my generation and especially on college campuses.
When I began the process of planning for a year of studying abroad, lots of people told me the reasons I shouldn’t do it—that I’d be thousands of miles from my support system, from familiarity, from my doctors. I had to convince them that going abroad would be a way of reclaiming my life and my wellbeing, a chance to make decisions about where and how I live. These were the same decisions I made years before as a wide-eyed high school senior with big dreams and a sketchy understanding of myself. Back then I chose a city campus even though I find peace in nature, and I opted for a rigorous program because I didn’t yet understand that perfectionism can have a downside. I don’t regret a single thing, but I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to learn from the past and to remake these decisions with my physical and mental wellbeing in mind.
I love where I am now. Freiburg has hiking trails just about everywhere and the work-life balance here gives greater credence to the importance of taking a moment to breathe. I also love that it’s easier to care for the planet. Recycling is better understood and truly expected of the people who live in Freiburg, and it takes much less effort to source products that come in sustainable packaging or to adhere to certain dietary choices. These small changes have had a deep personal impact on me because I want so badly to take care of the planet I live on. For me and for many in my generation, the existential dread of climate change defines much of our current and future struggle, and if you have depression, that kind of ever-present stress can add to an already difficult condition.
Having goals is something that we all can identify with, and whether that goal is a reduced carbon footprint or something entirely different, achieving it can seem much more daunting when you are depressed. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that if I want to do something I should just do it. And I’ve tried and sometimes even succeeded in these endeavors, but what all these attempts have in common was that they were exhausting because what I was trying to do wasn’t something that was enabled or prescribed by the culture and place in which I resided. I was exhausted because depression had already taken away the energy, willpower, and optimism that come more naturally to others. Since arriving in Germany, I’ve made changes that give me hope. I can easily eat vegan (nothing against other dietary choices) because these options are on menus and in grocery stores wherever I go; I can easily get around because the public transportation is affordable, safe, and reliable; I can get tea to-go in a reusable cup at the café and buy rice in a recycled jar instead of a plastic bag. Maybe these seem like small victories, but when you feel hollowed out and not like yourself, the opportunity to become the person you want to be, even in the tiniest of ways, means everything.
What I am trying to say about studying abroad is that the chance to redefine one’s life can be incredibly positive for someone with depression. This may not be the most uplifting post that you find on the IES Abroad site, but I hope it can be inspiring for other reasons. Sometimes, hearing from someone else that you are not alone in your struggles, or that opportunities you thought were out of reach are in fact attainable, can be a great relief.
I have so much more to say about what it’s like to struggle with mental health issues while abroad, and I also have some good advice for how to cope within the first days and weeks of being in an unfamiliar place. And if you really just want to hear about all the fun things I get to do and see while in Germany, don’t worry; I will be writing about those too! In the meantime, thanks for reading and I wish you health and happiness during this fall semester.
More Blogs From This Author
Hi there! My name is Isabel Pineo and I am coming to you this semester from Freiburg im Breisgau, a charming city in the Black Forest of sunny southern Germany. The official reason I’m here: to learn about environmental studies in a culture and urban setting known for its emphasis on sustainability. Unofficial reason: to eat amazing food, go on lots of hikes, meet fascinating people both local and foreign, and to focus on putting my physical and mental health first. I guess you could say that I’m searching for answers to the question of what it means to live rightly in the world, for the Earth and for ourselves. Since most of us have been asking that question for a very long time, I’ll be sure to update you on all the answers I find as the semester progresses!