Study Abroad

How to Deal With Depression While Studying Abroad

Studying abroad is a life changing experience, but that means it comes with both ups and downs. Learn how to recognize the signs of depression while studying abroad and tips for how best to manage those negative thoughts.

Caitlin McCollum-Martinez

Caitlin is a travel writer and polyglot from sunny Southern California. She has traveled to over 15 countries and lived in Spain, the Czech Republic, South Korea, and Scotland. She currently resides in Vietnam.

Looking back on my time abroad I can definitely say studying abroad is one of the most important and formative experiences in my life. Having studied abroad three separate times in Spain and the Czech Republic, I may be a bit biased, but studying abroad is easily one of the best opportunities you will have in your life!

However, it is not always sunshine and rainbows when you study abroad. Having lived, worked, and studied in seven countries in the past five years I can safely speak to the ups and downs of life overseas. Life abroad is sometimes so tumultuous it can make anyone feel a bit down from time to time. However, if you’re someone who suffers from depression or anxiety--like me--, the difficulties you face overseas can magnify and exacerbate the issues caused by depression.

What Causes Depression While Studying Abroad

Depression is a complex condition that can strike for a number of reasons and can differ in severity depending on many factors that are usually out of our control. Depression and anxiety can severely disrupt your life, especially when you are about to embark on such a huge life-changing endeavor.

Being a student alone is difficult, and the prevalence of depression among university students is quite high. Nearly 1 in 3 students experience some kind of mental health issue.

Preparing to study abroad can be intense and can naturally make anyone feel nervous or anxious. Depression frequently accompanies the unexpected and often underestimated challenges of living abroad and living in a new culture while learning a new language. Homesickness can also contribute to depressive feelings, or help to bring them about.

Studying abroad has many challenges, and it’s not uncommon to experience culture shock, unmet expectations about your new life, and overwhelming situations, and many students can have depressed feelings as a result. Depression while studying abroad is surprisingly common, but often overlooked, especially when there are such high expectations for study abroad to be the best experience in your life.

Depression and COVID-19

A few months ago, my dad tested positive for COVID-19. While he ended up having a mild case and is perfectly healthy now, I had to consider the possibilities and how I would get back to the U.S. if worst came to worst. The added anxiety of a global pandemic can be a recipe for disaster for anyone’s mental health while living far from home, especially if you’re studying abroad.

With the trauma we have all faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are all more susceptible to depressed feelings than ever before. As a student abroad during the pandemic, it can be even more difficult to stay positive and enjoy your time abroad.

While programs are still running, fewer and fewer students are studying abroad due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. It can be hard for current study abroad students to feel like they have a community or a group of friends to ground them while they are abroad. It is easy to feel isolated when you’re in a new country, away from your family and friends, with the constant worry that those you love may be affected by the pandemic while you are away.

It’s important to keep in mind the resources available to help you if you are feeling like you could be depressed. It is also important to recognize the symptoms of depression so that you are more equipped to seek help when you need it.

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How to Recognize Symptoms of Depression

While symptoms associated with depression can be easy to list, they can be difficult to distinguish from everyday ups and downs that you may experience, especially while adjusting to a completely new environment like studying abroad in a new country. Some of the more recognizable symptoms are:

  • Inability to Get out of Bed/Motivate Yourself
  • Lack of or Too Much of an Appetite
  • Unavoidable Negative Thoughts
  • Erratic Mood Swings
  • Lack of Focus or Pervasive Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty Sleeping or Sleeping Too Much
  • Irritability
  • Physical Pain
  • Lack of Interest in Things You Once Loved
  • Difficulty in Upholding Self Care
  • Intense Anxiety (Anxiety and depression often coexist, so be sure to check that your concerns aren’t growing into constant fear or sadness.)

While these symptoms can be recognizable to an outside party, in the thick of the moment, you may doubt yourself. Depression can easily be brushed off as “just homesickness” but it is a serious issue. If you think you may be experiencing any of these symptoms you should consider looking at ways to manage them or asking for help before they manifest into anything more damaging.

How to Manage Depression While Studying Abroad

As depression can be difficult to diagnose and treat, especially while abroad, it is important to not only check in with yourself regularly but also identify hobbies, people, and places that will be able to help you during your time of need. Some items to consider both before and during your time include the following:

Prepare in Advance by Facing Your Issues

If you know that you are prone to anxiety and/or depression, prepare ahead by speaking with a therapist or psychiatrist at home and start looking into preordering larger prescription amounts in case medication is not affordable or easily accessible within your destination abroad. Additionally, consider discussing telehealth options with your therapist to see if you may be able to continue your sessions remotely while abroad.

Participate in Creative Expression

Creative outlets often help mitigate or reduce the symptoms of depression. Consider trying journaling, painting, drawing, or taking a creative class while studying abroad.

Self-Care

Depression can make it difficult to do even simple everyday tasks, like showering or eating. Try to create routines and habits that help you get out of bed and help you care for yourself.

Meditation/Self-Soothing

If you experience any symptoms such as panic attacks or intrusive thoughts, it is helpful to know some methods to help soothe yourself. Try counting backwards by 7s starting with 100 or count the number of items around you of a certain color until you start to feel yourself calm down. Consider also trying some form of meditation; there are many free resources online to help you learn how to meditate to help with depression symptoms.

Find or Build A Community

Depending on your current position abroad (student, employee, or otherwise), you may start to experience a bubble effect that may not be a true reflection of daily life around you. Participating in local organizations enriches your experience, improves your cultural awareness and language ability, and provides you with a completely new set of friends and community that can provide you with alternative perspectives and connections.

Consider Alternative Programs Focused on Wellness and Mental Health

Not everyone will do well with a typical study abroad program. However, there are a plethora of study abroad, gap-year, or volunteer abroad programs that focus on wellness, or other aspects of self-reflection. Some programs focus on yoga and relaxation techniques, others include courses relating to mental health. In many cases, volunteer programs help people feel better about themselves because they are giving back and contributing to something bigger than themselves.

Seek Professional Help

Be sure to study up on your program or university’s insurance benefits and locate the nearest medical professionals for both everyday care as well as emergencies. Many countries are home to international hospitals that can provide care equal to or above the standards of your home country and are usually fully covered by your school’s or workplace’s benefits program.

How to Find Mental Health Treatment Abroad

If you find yourself experiencing symptoms and are ready to find help there are quite a few options open to you.

First and foremost, your school, workplace, or study abroad program usually provides extensive international health care benefits, including coverage for mental health services. However, it is important to consider that these hospitals, while able to provide a high level of care, are subject to local laws and restrictions, and are sometimes less able to provide the care or medication that you need. It is important to note that some countries have different views on mental health and depression. For example, in many East Asian countries, depression is seen as a shameful thing and is often downplayed or dismissed entirely.

If you are studying abroad at a local university, mental health centers can be found on campus for an affordable price with professionally trained visiting and/or local professors. Expatriate guides can also act as a great guide to find English language resources, especially medical care.

If mental health resources are difficult to find in English, consider online therapy options.
Now more than ever people are using online versions of counseling and therapy to assist them with their mental health issues.

If you need to wait or are having trouble finding care, try to take care of yourself in the interim. It’s important to give yourself extra time, without judgment or self-blame, to do things that may have been simpler to complete at home. Creating a routine, sometimes detailed to the point of having certain playlists for certain times of day can also help in building self-confidence and assurance until you gain the strength needed to embark on bigger adventures and projects. Depression is a continuous and rocky battle that can be temporary or long-term, but the best thing you can do is recognize the symptoms and don’t be too afraid to seek help.

This post was originally published in June 2014, and was updated in July 2018 and February 2021.