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- Sport and Wellbeing: The Importance of Exercise for Combatting Stress, Part Two
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- Anxiety, Depression and the Year Abroad: Part 2
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Being diagnosed with a mental illness is not the be all and end all.
So far this year, I have travelled around Spain, worked as an Au Pair in Madrid, Seville and Rome and chosen to spend my year abroad in Mexico.
Using my experience, I would like to share some useful travel tips for maintaining a healthy mind and what I do to deal with that newly accepted friend of mine, mental illness.
Firstly, I would say that having the diagnosis allowed me to accept myself for who I am. Part of the treatment, was to understand the illness and in doing so, I developed small but effective techniques to manage the irrational thoughts.
Not wanting to be defeated by my illness, I was eager to challenge myself and in Easter, I spent three weeks travelling to Barcelona, Mallorca and spending a few weeks, working with an amazing Spanish family, in Seville and Madrid.
This was my first voyage away for a while. Although a little apprehensive, my treatment had taught me to focus on the here and now, living in the moment and not thinking about what may or may not happen.
I began to write a travel journal, in order to record not only what I had been doing each day but the thoughts, feelings and emotions I was going through, at the time. I had never written a diary before and it was a challenge at first, however, after a week or so, it became second nature. Dedicating a time in the day to jot down my thoughts, proved to be an effective way of dealing with any issues faced during that day, allowing me to move on. My memory has become very poor, so having this journal really helps documenting those unique moments that I don’t want to forget.
After enjoying my time working as an Au Pair in Spain this summer, I found a willing family in central Rome, where I would spend the summer. This was a life changing experience, yet I still had some difficult time with my mental health.
My travel journal continued to clear the mind as well as keeping busy and filling my day. Luckily, Rome is a city full of wonderful adventures to have and even when I was alone, usually the most difficult times, I was able to explore the many streets and historical sites on foot, which helped to lift any negative thoughts.
I have never enjoyed reading books. Taking time out to read a book in piece, is something that I struggle to do because my mind seems to get distracted easily from the story, the words are ignored and my attention turns to the anxious thoughts.
I have realised that with the right book, this struggle can be controlled. In Italy, I read Paolo Coelho’s Il Camino a Santiago, an international best selling novel that describes Coelho’s journey of discovering his spirituality during a pilgrimage. The book includes many meditation exercises, many of which I tried.
Being a social person, I rely heavily on the company of others as a way of dealing with my illness. I surrounded myself with friends, spending the mornings at a language school and the evenings in bars and restaurants, meeting more and more people from all over the world.
My decision to spend the year abroad in Mexico was one that raised a few issues. One of the reasons why I chose to study at the University of Southampton was due to this opportunity to travel to Mexico. I was not going to let this dream of mine be compromised by my illness, however, getting permission by the University to travel here was full of many hurdles.
I had to meet with various senior members of staff, from the faculty, get written permission by my doctor and have written reports submitted by enabling services. There was great concern among the faculty staff. I appreciate that they are there to look out for our welfare, but, ultimately, I did feel quite uncomfortable with the amount of meetings and forms I had to receive.
In some ways, I felt like I had to prove to the university that I was mentally stable to go to Mexico. No one likes to prove themselves, I certainly do not! This is one issue that the university should look into more carefully. At the end of the day, I know myself best and I know what I am capable of. Having a label attached to you leads to so such unnecessary fuss that can feel rather insulting.
So if you’re travelling with a mental illness, be sure to let the university aware of this well in advance of departure and expect great care taken by the staff, before being accepted onto the path of your choice. Choosing to study or work outside of Europe seems to require a lot more investigation and meetings than deciding to stay within the safety of the EU.
My risk assessment, which is completed by all students going on a year abroad, had to include steps to take in case of an emergency, concerning my illness. This was useful, in some aspects, as it allowed me to investigate the local health services in Cancun, which I would advise to do before departing. Other aspects, again, felt unnecessary.
One big issue that I faced before leaving was obtaining enough medication to take with me to last throughout my stay. Travelling to Mexico, situated in a completely different continent, runs the risk of potential problems, including accessing my medication. Mailing my medication was also something that I considered, however, it seemed to be expensive and I was warned of the unreliability of it arriving. The best bet was to speak with my doctor, who gave me a year’s supply of medication and wrote me a doctor’s note to explain the what it was, including the dosage and the diagnosis.
Fortunately, despite many anxious moments at airports in England, Canada and Mexico, I encountered no problems flying with a year’s supply of meds. Not once was I questioned over the hefty bag of drugs. A big relief!
Now I am here, I have continued to write in my travel journal. I have started my blog which allows me to reflect on my time in Mexico, as the weeks go by. Being able to talk to the right people is important and I keep in contact with the university as well as my mentor back in Southampton.
The prospect of travelling can be nerve-racking for anyone. Moving to a new country, possibly situated in a completely alien continent where you don’t speak the language, you don’t know anyone and even finding where to shop can lead to irrational thoughts. At times, you can feel very isolated and the temptation to return to the comfort of your own country can be very attractive.
Without sufficient understanding of mental health, these thoughts can manifest into an illness. As someone who has experienced this, in all of its hardship, I don’t know if I could cope being in an alien country with such manifesting thoughts.
It is extremely important that you understand your mind before leaving for a trip. Have a chat with your GP who can go through a simple test to determine any issues that you may have, mentally.
At times you will find yourself feeling alone, with only your mind and thoughts to keep you company. You want your mind to be healthy, clear from any irrational thoughts. Knowing how to deal with such irrational thoughts, before travelling, is invaluable.
To summarise, suffering with a mental illness isn’t and shouldn’t be an overriding issue that compromises where you chose to study, nor how you spend your time during the year abroad. This is an amazing opportunity offered to students that nothing should stop you participating in. Planning is key. What I have spoken about is what works for me but there are many different ways of coping with mental illness. Speak to your GP openly and they will be able to direct you to the right people and in preparing coping strategies.
The more we talk about mental health, the less difficult it is to seek help and advice. Sure, my illness still affects me and I have days where my moods are determined by the weight of my mind. However, being able to understand my illness and having some techniques in place allows me to deal with the low days much more effectively.