The ISA JournalJoin in on Mental Health Awareness Month with ISA

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and at ISA, we know that mental health is a topic relevant to every individual. Similar to physical health, staying mentally well is an ongoing practice and a highly individualized journey. While traveling, you may notice some shifts in your wellness that require unique interventions.   

In this blog, we share stories and tips from alumni about how they prioritized mental health during their study abroad experience. Although everyone’s journey is different, these stories offer insights on how to optimize well-being. We hope they will aid your own self-discovery of what practices and mental health tools are most helpful for you. If possible, we invite you to spend some time pre-departure to reflect on ways you can maintain calmness and clarity and be your best self throughout your program.  

Here’s what our alumni had to say about navigating their mental health abroad!

EliAnna B. | Granada, Spain

Messiah University

“A very important component of studying abroad is keeping that stability in just reflection on your own emotions and how you’re processing these new experiences. I think a lot of people, when going abroad, forget that component. They are so excited by the adrenaline of visiting new places, meeting new people, and starting a new academic semester somewhere new. I think they forget and lack that experience. But I think a part of the experience is processing it and reflecting on it and how you are receiving it in your perception through that. So for me, personally, before leaving for abroad, I actually made a journal for my mother. We decorated journals, and we gave these journals to each other after. And then, we had photos, pictures, quotes, and poems in them.

So while I was abroad and she was home, we were writing letters to each other. But in writing those letters to each other, we were journaling. When I came back, I was able to give her the journal that she had given me as a gift back to her, and vice versa. I think, during this, it kind of reinforced me to stay connected with my family, not only when I was struggling with homesickness but also just processing my thoughts and what I had been struggling with during that time. And I think that was a way to stay connected with my family but also stay connected with my mental well-being while abroad, with differences and similarities. And I think that’s a good, unique way that other people should share those experiences and currently going through those processes.”

Beatrix C. | Valencia, Spain

University of Tulsa

When you go abroad, your mental and physical health are still very important. It can feel like there are so many other things to tend to, so many places to see, and people to meet that you forget to kind of see how you are doing. But it’s so important, and it really does enhance your time there. And you can also set a great example for the people around you. So mental health. I think it’s so important to keep in touch with your friends in the United States, or wherever you’re coming from, and your family and to let them in on your experience. It is. And if you’re struggling, that’s okay, too. They want to hear about it.

If you are really struggling and you feel very alone, you can reach out to the onsite ISA staff, which is so wonderful because those people work for ISA, and so they’ve seen so many students abroad, and they understand the emotions and the process that you go through. They also know the country that you’re in very well. And so if you’re having a hard time adjusting, they can explain the culture a little bit. They helped me understand the language and the history a little bit more because I was a little shy to ask my questions to other locals, but they were very open with me, and they enjoyed your questions and they want to help you. If you have things here that you really like to do, then you should take that with you. And that’s okay. It doesn’t invalidate your experience or make it like you’re not immersed, so to speak.

If you really miss food from home, that’s okay, too. You can go to the supermarket. There’s usually a little international food section. My host parents…there was one day when I was very homesick, and my host parents knew that Americans eat ice cream when they’re sad. And so she went and bought me a big tub of chocolate ice cream, and it really did help. It was just so sweet of her, and it’s cool for people international people to get to see a little bit of your culture, too.

The time zone difference can be intimidating, but I promise you can find time to call your friends. It might take a little bit of planning. It might look different than when you’re at home, but there’s always time for that, and it’s so cool now when I can talk to my friends about my time abroad there. ‘Oh, yes, I remember you telling me about that story that happened while you were doing this that weekend.’ And it’s just special.

So let people in and get to know the people around you…I think it’s just important to keep your connections. You’re going to feel a little bit isolated. But you’re not. There are so many people who care about you. And again, if you are really overwhelmed, please go to the onsite ISA staff because they’re trained and there for you.”

Catherine L. | Dublin, Ireland

Eastern Michigan University

“Finding community was important to help with homesickness and mental health. What I would also say is to just explore. Try to explore as much as you can. Because, you know, if you go out and see the sites and all these beautiful things that your host country has to offer, it’ll kind of just remind you of why you’re here and why you decided to do this. And yeah, I think that just really helps with missing home a little less because it’s just reminding you of the incredible, beautiful experiences you’re having.

I would also really encourage anyone to kind of look into whether their host university has any sort of counseling, mental health, mindfulness, or wellness programs. I participated in some counseling while I was abroad through my university there, and I think it was helpful to talk to someone about what you’re going through. Also, connecting with other international students or other ISA students where they’re with you can also be helpful because you might all be feeling a little bit homesick at the same time. Connecting over that and bonding over that can also be beneficial.”

Xena C. | Barcelona, Spain

Seattle University

“One of the things I started was a journal. I started a specific study abroad journal so I could keep track of everything that I did, all the adventures that I went on, and all the people that I was meeting also. I thought that it would be a great souvenir. As I was writing it, I was imagining that I was like telling it to my best friend back at home, or, you know, like calling my mom. And I’m between Seattle and Spain, so that it’s like the biggest time difference you can get from America to Europe, because we’re all the way on the West Coast. My family and friends didn’t usually wake up until, like, 4 or 5 p.m. Spain time. There was a lot of times all day where I couldn’t connect with my support system. So, having that journal, and like if I had something I wanted to say to them, I would just write it down, and then I’d call them later, and I could be like, ‘Oh, and this is what I did.’ And then, I made sure that I didn’t miss any stories.

The other thing I battled with mental health while being abroad was guilt and not enjoying it enough. I knew people that were going out every single night almost, and I don’t have the stamina for that, quite frankly. I had to give myself space and say, it’s okay. If you just want to stay in bed and read a book, or you just want to watch a movie on Netflix, you have time and space to do that. And just because you’re abroad doesn’t mean that you need to be going out and doing crazy things all the time. Because I was there for just shy of four months, and I have so many crazy stories to tell. There were also plenty of nights where I was just sitting in my pjs and chatting with my host mom. So giving yourself time to just be a person as well as this amazing, crazy adventurer and traveler—and making sure you’re not overwhelming or overworking yourself just because you’re in this fun new place—I think, is important to preserving and maintaining your mental health.

Pria Z. | Buenos Aires, Argentina

University of Colorado

“The way I was able to tap into areas I felt most comfortable with—I think the only way for students to be able to do that—is spend time in areas they’re uncomfortable with. It was the adventure of going to find those pieces that really made my experience worthwhile and really made it a fantastic time. Because when you travel to a new place, you might have to give up what you’re used to, and you should. The way I found those spaces is that you come in with the mentality that you must look for the activities you want to participate in and find the right communities.

My first adventure, I took a train with a group of friends to a little beach spot that was close by in the middle of winter. And in the middle of this, there’s this rock-climbing wall, and so, being engaged in those outdoor activities, I started having a conversation with some of the Argentines that had traveled in the South that are really active and adventurous. And you start to find similar people who are like you, even if they’re in the city, and you start to realize that you’re not much different. Your cultural community can be found in other parts of the world and other places because other people enjoy those activities.

So, once I signed up for a gym and started to book travels like skiing and even running in the beautiful parks in Argentina, I started to really enjoy myself: really enjoy the sun, really enjoy those places of just seeing people every day, enjoy life at a pace that was so different from Colorado. I think that the way to tap into your mental health is going into it not completely changing, but allowing yourself to adapt to what you want to accomplish and seeing that transition happen over that time. It may be a short time. It may be a longer time. So just go in knowing what you want to accomplish, and you can find that no matter what.”

Greta S. | Barcelona, Spain

Arizona State University

“I just continued to use the same resources I use at home to stay healthy physically and mentally. I weight lift, and I do rock climbing. And so, I immediately got back into those things. They’re a big, big outreach for me, a big way to relieve stress and just kind of remind myself that I’m good at things and I can do things. And I just immediately found things I was comfortable with. I just looked up gyms for both areas, and I was able to continue my same habits. I think having those consistent habits where I knew there was a space for me if I was feeling stressed or anxious or nervous. I could just go into what I know how to do and just go into my zone.

Having those outlets was huge. I would be feeling like a little homesick or a little nervous. You’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh! I’ve already been here for two months, and I’m still here for three more months,’ and I’d be like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go. Don’t get overwhelmed.’ [I would] just go lift, go for a run, and then I would come back with a clear head and be like, okay, I’m still the same person. I was still able to do my same habits and hobbies, and it was extremely helpful for sure. What made my abroad experience easier, was just finding those outlets that were familiar to me and continuing to do them.”

Catelyn C. | Paris, France

Ohio University

“For staying healthy mentally, I made sure not to try to stay completely connected to life at home. I wasn’t calling my family every single day and trying to be like, ‘What’s happening? What are my friends doing?’ Because it gets really tiring, trying to live in both places. So yes, I stayed in contact with my family and friends, but limited to once or twice a week, and I wasn’t trying to live through them that way. I didn’t have FOMO, and that’s usually a problem for me. So, I just kind of disconnected a little bit from home. Then I could live in the moment in France, which helped a lot. And then I made some friends, and we were hanging out all the time trying new things, and that was super fun. Honestly, I was in a good mood all the time. I only got sad maybe twice, and I was just living life. And it was a really positive experience.”

Studying abroad can be an intense experience. There can be moments of heightened bliss paired with moments of difficulty and confusion. When you get to a new culture with so many dynamic factors, you may notice shifts in your mood, interests, or energy levels. This is normal, and with self-awareness, a supportive community, and personalized tools, you will be ready to ride the waves of your experience. 

And remember that ISA is here to help along the way! If there’s anything you’d like to discuss about your mental well-being abroad, please reach out to us. Your Program Manager is your best point of contact pre-departure, and your onsite Resident Director is available throughout your program. Thanks for reading. Sending well wishes for your program!

Inspired by our alumni’s journeys and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in a study abroad program? Fill out your details below to let our team know, and we’ll help you find your adventure!

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