Mental Health and Wellbeing Abroad
Deciding to take part in a global learning activity opens the door for an exciting and enriching experience. In considering whether this is the right activity for you, it is important that you evaluate the potential impact this may have on your mental health. This is true for all students, and perhaps more so for those who have a previous or existing mental health condition.
Participating in a global learning activity will likely involve transitions that induce stress. Furthermore, while you are abroad you may not be able to access the same range of support services available to you here in Toronto and at Ryerson. With careful and early planning, however, you will be able to manage the stresses of going abroad successfully.
This page is a good resource to explore when considering a global learning activity and how to cope with the potential impact on your mental health. The considerations below have been shaped by the experiences of other students with mental health conditions who have gone abroad.
Note that some of this information was adapted from Brandeis University - Office of Study Abroad’s Mental Health page, external link, opens in new window. It has been reviewed and further developed with the help of Ryerson’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC).
General Mental Health Questions
It is common to feel some stress before, during and after a global learning activity as you will be going through various stages of adjustment. Ongoing and increasing stress is not, however, especially if it is having an impact on your ability to function as you usually would. You want to look for a change in your sleep pattern (more or less), change in appetite (more or less), trouble concentrating, worrying, isolating, increase in use of alcohol, and loss of interest in fun activities. If you notice any of these signs, seek help by reaching out to your activity organizer and ask for their support. If symptoms worsen, contact Ryerson International or International SOS (ISOS).
If you are having thoughts of suicide, get help immediately. Your health and safety are extremely important, inform your program and ask to be taken to an emergency room.
International SOS (ISOS) is our health and safety partner organization. All students participating in global learning activities abroad must register for ISOS. ISOS can provide you with access to up to 6 sessions of phone-counselling for free. Students are able to proactively set up a call with a counselor in advance of travel to ensure a counselling session is scheduled upon arrival at the host destination. See our section on Safety Abroad for more information.
Homesickness is normal and should subside as you adjust. It can be felt as anxiety, sadness, and nervousness as well as a preoccupation with thoughts of home, family, and friends; you’re really missing your routine and sense of security. Homesickness can be helped by looking for ways to get involved with others, putting yourself in new situations, establishing a routine, staying engaged with your new program, doing something to feel closer to home, talking to someone who understands, and remembering this feeling is not permanent, and you can take actions to help it pass.
Some helpful coping strategies are:
- keeping a regular sleep routine
- eating well
- maintaining a healthy schedule
- exercising good judgement about the use of alcohol
- looking for ways to get involved and engaged with others
- using available supports
- staying in touch with family and friends from home is helpful, however, it is important to not rely on this as your only source of social interaction. For instance, you could choose to limit connecting with friends and family to once per week
Think back to the last time you had to transition to a new environment - the first-year of university might be a good point. How did you deal with the stress and anxiety of that time? What support systems (friends, family, language) did you have in place to help you? Will you have similar supports while abroad? If not, how can you access them?
Some things to consider if you have previous or existing mental health condition:
In order to safely participate in global learning activities, your first step should be to inform your activity coordinator or other staff at Ryerson University who may be able to support you exploring your options (eg. Student Accommodation Support at your host institution). They will be able to help you in identifying how your needs will be met while participating.
You will need to let your activity coordinator know as soon as possible if you know in advance that you are in need of ongoing support from a mental health practitioner. You will also need to clarify that your health insurance will cover such care. Making arrangements to meet with a specific practitioner and clarifying payment arrangements before you go is best. Even if you are uncertain whether you will need psychotherapy or psychiatric care while away, clarifying the resources available and your insurance coverage ahead of time is wise.
If you are currently on psychiatric medications, have your prescriber prescribe enough medicine for your entire stay abroad. Check to see if your medicine is legal in your destination country. In the event that it is not and as a safety measure, have your prescriber write a letter on letterhead stating that you are being prescribed this medicine. Carry medicine in the original pill bottles with the prescription label on the bottle.
The Ryerson Centre for Student Development and Counselling cannot provide therapeutic support to students who are not on campus. However, our office will work with you to try and secure therapeutic support at your host destination. In addition, as stated above, ISOS is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week to offer advice and support in order to connect you with in country counsellors, practitioners or doctors, as well as explore the option of telephone counselling with one of their healthcare professionals.
Mental Health and Wellbeing at Ryerson
Balancing Mental Health Abroad, external link, opens in new window - Article written by U.S. students about studying abroad and mental health.
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mental Health Issues Abroad, external link, opens in new window - Article written by student participating in study abroad through Northwestern University about managing mental health issues abroad.
Preparations for Travel with Mental Health Conditions, external link, opens in new window - A resource guide put together by Mobility International USA.
Resource Library for Mental Health, external link, opens in new window - National Clearing House on Disability and Exchange
Managing Mental Health While Abroad, external link, opens in new window - An article about dealing with anxiety while on exchange.
4 things to know about travel and mental health, external link, opens in new window - An article by the Travel Health Journal.