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How I Managed My Mental Health While Living Abroad

By: Emily McGuigan

I have always dreamed of traveling across the world, so when I got the opportunity to study and intern in Florence, Italy, for three months I was beside myself. The closer the date crept up, the more my excitement morphed into anxiety. My mind became cluttered with “what ifs” and questions about if I was really ready to live across the world.

I couldn’t keep putting pressure on myself to make every moment of every day as spectacular as possible because that wasn’t realistic for me. I told myself that I would have some bad days because I’m human, and that it was okay.

I spent my remaining time in the States working with my therapist and psychiatrist to ensure that I was properly equipped with prescriptions and coping skills for my time away. The sort of mantra my therapist and I had agreed on was that if something negative happened, it didn’t determine the rest of the day or trip. There was too much to look forward to to already start off the experience with predetermined expectations of problems I would face, so my top priority became having an open mind.

The first two weeks in Florence were filled with adrenaline and readjustment, and fortunately, I didn’t experience culture shock. Being in a routine is crucial for managing my anxiety and depression so the biggest challenge I faced then was trying to figure out what my new routine was going to be in a place where I didn’t know anyone, didn’t know the language, and didn’t know the city. My patience was tested the first few days because of being sick, getting lost, being late to meetings, and getting locked in my apartment (thank you Italian padlock doors). 

At home, I had a group of friends that already understood my mental illness and how to support me, but they were all across the world now and six hours behind me and not always available to talk. My biggest fear before my trip was not having a support system overseas, so now that I was living with new people I had to figure out how to be honest about when I was struggling because they would be witnessing it to some extent. We were there to have amazing experiences, and I didn’t want to infringe on any of theirs by having an episode at any given point in time.

The reality was that some days were very hard for me, and it had an effect on my roommates whether I liked it or not, simply because they cared. They checked in on me to see how I was doing if they knew I was having a hard time, or I would let them know if I needed my space because we had achieved a comfort level that allowed me to do so.

Going on social media and seeing what I was missing back home was hard at first, but I always reminded myself that I was having a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It was hard on me knowing when there was trouble at home and I wasn’t there to do anything about it. Even with my family’s reassurance, I still had bad depressive states and had to use my emergency panic attack medication several times. I felt like I was in a weird state of limbo because I wanted to be home for my family but I also wanted to be selfish and focus on my trip.

My self-care plan had to adapt to what I had available to me. When I ran out of my medication, I had to see a doctor there to get a new prescription. Luckily my medication was available at the local pharmacies because some medications for certain disorders are illegal in Italy. I didn’t see a therapist while I was there so writing and drawing were huge outlets for me. I also joined a gym near my apartment because exercising helps me manage stress. Whenever I felt suffocated or just needed some air, I could easily find spots in Florence that I could escape to.

Being away wasn’t an escape of my problems, but I was able to gain a new perspective on them. I could step back and reprioritize. The things I used to constantly worry about don’t matter to me anymore, which gives me the energy to focus on what really does. Now that I am home I have readapted my old self care plan, while incorporating what I have learned about myself and my needs. I have shown myself that I am capable of working through my mental health problems and there is no reason to be afraid anymore.

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