what studying abroad can do to your mental health

It's sold as wall-to-wall fun and freedom, but students can feel they've been left high and dry when the reality doesn't match up.

by Kirstie Sutherland
24 September 2019, 12:18pm

For the tens of thousands of British university students who choose to study abroad as part of their degree, the notion is often sold as a fabled “best year of your life” experience. Yet the effect of moving away on mental health is often not spoken about before departure, and this can potentially end up completely overshadowing what should be a year of making new friends, improving language skills and learning a new way of life.

“I hadn’t really experienced issues with my mental health before my year abroad, and it was really hard to admit that I was finding things difficult, both mentally and academically,” explains Saskia*, who moved from Birmingham to Barcelona as part of her BA in 2016. Within weeks of relocating, she was struggling like she never had before.

Mental health provision in higher education has been a hot topic in recent years. But preposterously, services for students are not seeing enough timely improvement, despite several news articles and think pieces highlighting the lack of mental health support, staff and funding available at UK institutions. This relative inaction is difficult to understand, especially as statistics show that in the last ten years, five times as many students have spoken to their university about mental health issues, with disconcertingly high rates of suicide. When it comes to institutions safeguarding students who are studying abroad in programs like Erasmus, the students I spoke to described a worrying lack of care.

“The difficulties I had at my new university in Spain meant I was really stressed,” says Saskia. “I was working twelve hours a day to try and get the grades I wanted. I’d never really struggled academically before, and that, combined with the pressure of having an amazing time abroad, made it hard to admit something was wrong.”

Saskia contacted her year group’s welfare tutor but emails went unanswered, even when she wrote of thoughts about harming herself. She signed up for the university’s remote counselling service but did not receive an acknowledgement of enrolment for three months -- and that was only after her boyfriend personally visited the university to chase them up. In the meantime, Saskia was experiencing panic attacks and acute anxiety left her housebound.

“I took time out and returned home to seek medical help,” she says. “I was offered very little in terms of actual help face-to-face with someone from the university, and by the time I was offered something more substantial, the first half of my year was over and my mental health had already deteriorated significantly. I still suffer with panic attacks now, and I’m definitely a very different person with far less confidence. I’m convinced that had I got the proper support I needed and asked for, I wouldn’t still be struggling with my mental health today.”

Back in Birmingham, Saskia wanted to make sure her experience in Spain wouldn’t go ignored. “I chose to email my head of department to raise concerns,” she explains. “The answer seemed to be that everything would be okay in the future because they were introducing a full-time welfare tutor for the entire college.” Given the size of the department, which covers art history and music as well as languages for hundreds of students, Saskia was incredibly angry that there wasn’t a better and more substantial solution put in place.

Saskia’s experience isn’t singular. After a 2016 move to Limoges, a small city in south-west France, Durham student Nina Attridge began to feel isolated and lonely. Not long after moving away, she found that keeping busy and pushing herself to talk to locals were not good enough strategies to help settle into her new life. Before long her mental state had worsened dramatically.

“Being good at French didn’t actually mean I formed strong emotional connections with anyone,” she says. “The amount of emotional exertion it took just to leave the house, knowing that wherever I went it was going to pose a challenge to communicate, meant I eventually started giving up. When I did go out, I found myself completely disassociated and didn’t feel like a real person.”

She experienced suicidal thoughts and eventually called a French suicide hotline. The operator encouraged Nina to seek help from her host university in Limoges. When she did, she was immediately put in contact with a counsellor. However, support from Durham was severely lacking. “I had limited contact with staff, and the one person who was ‘responsible’ for me while I was away was frankly clueless and negligent,” she recalls. “There was not a single link or contact for welfare on the student portal.” After three months in France, Nina dropped out of her year abroad.

The University of Durham now offers and advertises more widely a counselling service for its students online that they can self-refer themselves to by calling or emailing, which has become the norm for most British institutions. Pro-Vice Chancellor of Colleges and Student Experience, Martyn Evans, says the uni has “significantly increased [their] support for mental health services in recent years.” When asked for comment, the University of Birmingham suggested to i-D that students self-refer themselves, after which support, like online and Skype counselling, is available.

But, as Saskia well knows, simply the option of further contact with a tutor does not mean you’ll get a reply or the help you actually need. Moreover, when Nina called her school director about her tutor, excuses were made about his rudeness and negligence. No action would be taken. She was left mortified, and as though it was her own fault she had experienced depression.

This response has lead students to take matters into their own hands. The negative experiences of Edinburgh student Georgie Harris steeled her to ensure other students about to embark on a year abroad could avoid feeling like she did. After struggling with isolation and subsequent heavy-drinking during her time studying in Madrid, she decided to do something about it. On her return to Edinburgh, she became a rep for the Literature, Languages and Culture department, a dedicated port of call for students.

“I told [Edinburgh] they needed to improve support,” she says. “Universities should reach out to students about resources and support available to them while they are abroad, instead of assuming they are coping. Lots of people suffer in silence on their year abroad, but post smiley pictures and pretend they are fine. This is so much more common than people think.”

One of Georgie’s key aims upon returning to Edinburgh and taking up her rep role was to encourage honest conversations about what struggles students going abroad might face, with a fundamental aim to improve communication between the university and students on realistic expectations of what a year abroad is like and what help they can access. This information is now more widely available as part of the pre-departure sessions offered to students and since graduating, Georgie has become Community Vice President of Edinburgh’s Student Association and continues to champion mental health access abroad.

“Transitions can be challenging,” a spokesperson from the mental health charity SANE told i-D. “Anticipating being away from home and familiar support networks can sometimes lead to worry, anxiety and stress. It’s important to recognise these emotions are to be expected.”

As a graduate who struggled during a year abroad myself, I know that there is no one-fits-all solution to alleviating experiences of loneliness, anxiety, depression and more. The students interviewed for this piece agree that it’s best to go into your year abroad with realistic expectations of what you might encounter, and be aware of how being away from home can affect you.

A year abroad is a formative experience, one that can change your life, improve your language skills, and can gift you friends for life. But as Nina tells us: “Don’t be ashamed of deliberately going to the same place as a friend or of making English-speaking friends wherever you end up.” But her most pertinent advice? “Don’t be afraid to do what’s best for you. No degree is worth being miserable.”

If you’re currently abroad and experiencing mental health difficulties, contact Samaritans on 116 123.

* Some names have been changed.

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