Anxiety, Depression and the Year Abroad: Part 1


According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in four people will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year. Mental health among young people, and students in particular, continues to be an uncomfortable subject to talk openly about. But by not talking about mental health decreases the awareness of symptoms, resulting in long term illnesses developing. Right now, the UK has one of the highest self-harm rates in Europe, with suicide remaining the most common cause of death for men in the UK.

As I write, I am currently a month into my year abroad in Cancun, Mexico. A year ago, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression. After years of suffering in silence, taking the first step in seeking professional help was incredibly difficult. However, after receiving this diagnosis, I can now honestly say that it was the best decision that I could have made.

Not only was I able to begin treatment, starting to unravel my thoughts, but, more importantly, it allowed me to understand this illness and give me the determination and confidence to embark on a year spent abroad, in a completely alien country.

A friend of mine, who is spending her year abroad in Colima, Mexico, recently posted an amazing piece on her blog that highlights the importance of understanding mental health, especially before embarking on the year abroad.

Cancun, Mexico
Cancun, Mexico

Following this, I would like to open up and share my own experiences in terms of the preparations I made before my year abroad as well as how I cope travelling with a mental illness.

Before I speak about the present, regarding the year abroad, I would like to explain a little about my past and the unexpected problems I faced after being diagnosed.

A year into my A-Levels, I began to feel low. Under the impression that this must have been the moody ‘phase’ that all teenagers go through, I continued to bury these intrusive thoughts, feelings and emotions deep into the back of my mind. Two years passed and this ‘phase’ persisted.

Even after various occasions, contemplating taking my own life, not once did I consider talking to anyone, convincing myself that this was all part of this ‘phase’. However, there are only so many burials the mind can take.

A semester into my first year of university, the sheer weight of my head became unbearable and impossible to live with. I could no longer hold back the irrational thoughts of the past, which were flooding back into the present.

I had hoped that meeting new people, getting drunk and enjoying the university experience would relieve me from this weight. Instead, this environment could not carry such a weight and soon, I realised that my whole being was controlled by the negative thoughts, trapped inside my mind. I had a series of suicidal thoughts throughout my first year of university.

As much as I tried to ignore, as much as I attempted to put on a front and as much as I tried to knuckle down with my degree, four years of neglecting the tornado of thoughts inside my mind had reached an overwhelming climax.

The turning point came after the isolation and the disconnection I felt from my surroundings became too much. Not knowing or understanding what was going on inside my head was the most frustrating factor. So, I looked online and got in contact with a couple of charities and tried to put what I was experiencing into words.

It was a semester into my second year when I plucked up the courage to take the advice, given to me by the charities, and speak with my GP.

Looking back now I am just grateful that my thoughts didn’t get the better of me. At the time, I remember feeling ashamed of having suicidal thoughts. Now I feel ashamed of feeling such shame. What I want to understand better is why I felt this shame and why did it take me so long to seek help?

After my diagnosis, I began to open up to the university by having regular counselling sessions with student services and meetings with academic staff. The support I received was great. Soon, it came to telling my friends and family, which was ultimately, a tale of two halves.

Talking about my emotions has always been an uncomfortable prospect. I have learnt to express myself through writing, which I used to tell my closest friends and family about my mental illness.

At university, however, it proved more difficult to brave telling my friends. Perhaps it was the fact that these friendships were still in their early stages and the trust, that I consider to be the most important feature, hadn’t yet had enough time to develop.

Nonetheless, treatment had taught me that by not being open and honest with yourself and to others around you, it will only lead to more anxieties and depressive thoughts.  I gradually told the closest to me of my illness and I was mostly met with positive, somewhat awkward responses.

I found that some people just don’t know what to say. But the responses that left me completely gob-smacked were the ones of complete disbelief that I suffer with an illness. I have been offended by people, who were my friends, that refuse to accept that I have an illness.

I have realised that because people cannot see physical symptoms, many find it difficult to accept anxiety, depression and all other mental health problems as illnesses. Shocked by such reactions, my confidence to be open about what I suffer with plummeted and I became obsessed with why people would be so offensive.

As a whole, it comes down to the lack of understanding of mental illness. If we start talking about mental health wellbeing more frequently at an earlier age, our society would be much more prepared and comfortable to accept mental illness.

The importance of educating each generation more thoroughly, at a younger age, would not only encourage more people to talk openly about mental health but, moreover, many more people- students in particular- would have the courage to seek professional help, before it is too late.

I believe that the shame I felt, the denial and the frustration I felt, as a student who has suffered with a mental illness, as well as the awkwardness, discomfort and unsupportive attitudes towards mental health, are due to the lack of awareness and understanding.

A year ago, I would not have even considered publishing this deeply personal experience. After educating myself about the facts and learning to accept my illness, I sit here today, comfortable with sharing my story to encourage other students to start speaking out more.Me-cancun1

Talking is one of the best treatments. It can prevent irrational thoughts from developing. The ignorance of some people has really hurt and offended me, in the past. Those individuals lack the understanding of mental health thus find it difficult to accept it as an illness and it’s of no fault of their own.

I consider myself to be an outgoing and social person. When I tell people about my mental illnesses, they are shocked because of this reason. It can be tough, at times, but just because a label has been placed on you, doesn’t mean that it should define who you are. As someone who doesn’t let labels define who I am, I consider that, for many, labels seem to be an essential need in life.

We live in an egotistical bubble where everything and everyone we experience, is filtered and manipulated by the brain in order to satisfy the ‘self’. The mind seeks labels in order to feel in control of itself. Without labels, the mind finds it hard to accept a person nor does it trust a person. Understanding the mind encourages the acceptance of people as individuals, rather than a set of labels.

I still express myself, more effectively, through writing. As I progress with my treatment, publicly putting my story out there, is another stepping stone in raising the awareness of mental health.

The more we talk, the more accepting we become.

This article was cross-posted with the author’s blog, El Guero Perdido. Part 2 will focus on all aspects of mental health during the year abroad.


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  13. Anxiety, Depression and the Year Abroad: Part 1
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BA Modern Languages student (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese), currently working and researching in Cancun, Mexico. I live to travel and there is nothing I love more than moving to a new country, immersing myself in the language and culture. I have lived in Spain, Italy and Mexico. I love writing about my personal experiences when travelling. I am also very interested in UK politics.

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