Studying Abroad and Mental Health

While the opportunity to study abroad is hugely positive, its challenges shouldn’t be underestimated. Living abroad usually entails finding accommodation, paying bills, administrative paperwork and university level courses in a foreign language for the first time. Added to that, most of us arrived on our year abroad with few to no personal connections and so have to build friendships, routines and lifestyles from scratch. Of course all of this is exciting but can also entail a great amount of stress. The pressure of making the most of the experience, improving your language skills and succeeding academically can become overwhelming, especially when added to existing mental health conditions.

Mental Health Abroad

Along with 25% of the UK population, I have previously suffered with poor mental health and over my time abroad a number of issues resurfaced. The first time I contacted my personal tutor was in December when it was coming to the end of first term where I mentioned that the lack of clarity about the exam process was exacerbating my anxiety. In fairness my personal tutor was great and has been throughout the whole process. She sent back an informative and understanding reply, which did put me at ease somewhat.

 Difficulty Accessing Support

During the second term things began to spiral out of control. I knew about halfway through that I needed to see a doctor. I tried to go to the medical centre at university in France but there was a wait hours long and I had to go to class. Furthermore, I could hardly explain how I was feeling in English so the thought of trying in French didn’t fill me with much confidence. Unsure what to do next; I thought the welfare officer at my UK university would be the best port of call. This is when things began to go downhill drastically.

I sent an e-mail explaining what I was struggling with and she replied telling me to seek medical advice and referring me to a webpage with extremely basic coping strategies. The tone and content of the email made me feel like I was wasting her time. I have since learned that the welfare tutors within each school do not have specific training and therefore are not adequately prepared to deal with the mental health needs of students. I then filled out a pretty extensive mental health assessment form via the Wellbeing Services, hoping that I could speak to someone online. It took weeks to get a response.

If I was at home, I could have gone to my doctor a long time ago. I would have also been in a much more supportive environment. The reason that things have escalated in this way is purely due to the fact that I am abroad. It takes support and understanding combined with practical solutions to help someone through a difficult period of mental health. The lack of support during the year abroad needs to be tackled immediately as it is currently putting the mental and physical health of our students at risk. I will be contacting the University directly when I get home to explain what has happened and I would like to work with them to improve the welfare system in place for outgoing year abroad students.

 What to do Pre Departure

For now my advice to anyone embarking on a year abroad that has previously suffered from mental health problems would be to go to your doctor and explain that you are about to undertake a challenge, which could adversely affect your mental health. This way, they will be prepared for a potential relapse or change in medication. I would also advise sharing the details of your condition with your personal tutor before you leave so that they may be better prepared to support you if necessary. These are both ideas that I feel would have benefitted me in hindsight. The lack of welfare support offered to students on their year abroad is symptomatic of the continuing disregard of mental health, something that needs to be improved in the university system nationwide.

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Renting Abroad as an Exchange Student

This post it going to be very matter of fact and detail the absolute nightmare my housemates and I have had whilst renting on our year abroad. I decided to finally compile a post detailing  some of the issues because I have heard from others studying abroad (especially in France) that students are often taken advantage of by money grabbing landlords who thrive on the fact that our level of French makes it difficult for us to accurately communicate our dissatisfaction. Also, the allegations and level of language thrown at us have been nothing short of insane to the point where all we can do is laugh at how ridiculous the situation has become.

  1. Living with a French landlord and French people in the flat above has culminated in what can only be described as targeted bullying where every single issue in the house is attributed to us. E.g. Noise, doors slamming, the vacuum cleaner being dirty (seriously) in spite of the fact there are nine people that live in this house and we represent just three of them. This has made us feel extremely unwelcome and uncomfortable in the house.
  2. We are sent emails about pretty much anything and everything my landlady decides we have done. Offences include walking loudly, entering the house late etc.
  3. She has tried to charge us extra for water, sending us a formal letter claiming that we have used an excessive amount and we will be charged extra.  However its on a meter system and we haven’t been shown any proof of how much the water actually costs. When we sent a letter asking for proof of this she changed her mind and decided she didn’t send us a bill but it was in fact a ‘warning’.
  4. The emails that she sends us often contain threatening language and are consistently rude and belittling. For example, “JE NE TRADUIS PAS. IL ME MANQUE DES MOTS pour savoir dire ma colère MAIS J’ESPERE QUE CES JEUNES FILLES PRENDRONT LE TEMPS DE TRADUIRE….” and my personal favourite “Mais vous êtes de vrais sauvages !!!.”
  5. Whilst I have not yet moved out I have heard of other students, like my friend Alex who are struggling to regain their deposits from French landlords despite leaving their flats in perfect condition and being assured the deposit will be returned in full.

Realistically, there is no solution to this problem because we all need to find accommodation when studying abroad, and the conditions in student residences are notoriously poor. However we need to raise awareness about the seriousness of this issue; just because we are foreign students does not mean we should be intimidated and taken advantage of financially.

 

What to do when you’re Homesick 

I think being homesick is inevitable when you move to a different country. I’ve been homesick here in France more times than I can remember. It strikes at inevitable times: the birthday of someone close to you at home, when you’re feeling ill or when you’ve got a pile of uni work which you only understand about half of. But it also hits you at the most unexpected times, like when you’re travelling somewhere new and exciting , or at least getting on with your everyday routine.

I’ve been in Grenoble for seven months now and sometimes it feels as alien as the first day I arrived. I was talking to Clare, one of my best friends here, and we realised that we’d both felt pretty homesick at times but hadn’t wanted to say anything to each other. The thing about moving abroad is that you have to start all over again in terms of friends so when things get really shit sometimes you don’t feel like you can talk to the people around you because you haven’t actually known them all that long. This is a catch 22 because you then end up talking to people at home and feeling even worse, wishing you were on a plane back there.

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So here’s a list of some things you could try to beat homesickness:

1. Go into a shop that you also have at home. I went into lush the other day just to look at all the bath bombs that I recognise. It’s surprisingly comforting I promise.

2. Talk to someone in the same position as you. It’s helpful to talk to any friends who are also on their year abroad as they’re likely to understand what you’re going through.

3. If you can’t talk to anyone then write it down. It’s amazing how much easier it is to deal with how you feel when you can see it physically written down in front of you.

4. Have a day off. It’s ok to spend all day binge watching your favourite series instead of immersing yourself in the target language.

5. Make a bucket list of things you want to do in your year abroad destination before you go home. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut so this can help to remind you of all the great things there is to do where you are.

6. Go to your favourite coffee shop or anywhere that has become familiar in your new home.

7. Try not to idealise your life at home. I think we can all get stuck in the ‘grass is always greener’ mindset, especially with the increased physical distance when we are abroad.

8. Do something cultural even if your friends don’t want to.

9. Think about how far you’ve come in your target language and feel accomplished. Remember when you first arrived in France and you couldn’t understand much more than bonjour?

10. Send postcards as a more personal way of keeping in touch with people back home.

A Couple of Days in Amsterdam

Earlier this month I took my first ever trip to Amsterdam to visit my friend Carys whose studying there. I chose a weekend which ended up being grey and miserable (obvs) but we made the most of it. After a 5:30am start I was pretty dead by the time I arrived at Amsterdam Central Station so I went straight back to her studio before heading to the American lunchroom and bakery,De Drie Graefjes. The lunchroom is super quaint and actually has veggie options – a refreshing change compared to eating out in France.

Sightseeing

Carys is one of the most naturally warm and easygoing people I know, so I knew that she’d be the perfect host and I was right. After lunch she showed me the main sights around Dam Square, including the Red Light District which was less shocking than I thought it would be.

 

Anne Frank’s House 

I’d booked a ticket to see Anne Frank’s house for the next morning. I have to be honest, I was disappointed by the whole experience. Having read her diary when I was younger I expected a moving tribute to the family. Instead, the extensive museum surrounding the house becomes a history lesson, the majority of which you have to go around in single file, making it difficult to appreciate the content on offer. The house itself was undoubtedly fascinating and eerie, but there is no reconstruction of the living conditions of the family and the attic is off bounds. The worst part was the huge gift shop tagged onto the end. I accept that museums need to make revenue however some of the items on sale were just in poor taste. For example, the fact that you can buy your own replica Anne Frank diary. I can’t help but feel that this takes away from the powerful story of the Frank family.

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Jordaan

Jordaan

Next, we headed over to the Jordaan area of the city. Jordaan is a historically working class area of Amsterdam which was eventually gentrified and is home beautifully kept properties along with quirky shops. It’s the perfect place wander around the canals aimlessly.

De Pjip

Lastly we went to have a look around De Pjip. It’s an ‘edgier’ part of the city, think Shoreditch but a lot more chilled out. While we were there we made a stop at United Pancakes for tea and traditional Dutch pancakes. As it was getting dark several of the bars were illuminated by outdoor heaters accompanied by sofas and piles of blankets which made for the cosiest set up (take note, England).

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De Pjip

 

 

 

 

January Highs

Getting back to normal life after Christmas is always hard and after two weeks at home, and exams in the first few days of the new year.That being said, I’m excited to be back in Grenoble and to throw myself into this term.

So, what’s on the cards for the next few weeks?

Veganurary 

Veganuary has reminded me of the benefits of whole foods and a plant based diet so this month I’m eating 80% vegan. I eat a lot of vegan meals anyway so this isn’t a huge challenge for me but I’ve been searching for lots of #foodinspo online. These are some of my favourite food bloggers who are either vegan or create a substantial amount of vegan recipes:

Veganuary on a budget: Cooking on a Bootstrap

Jack’s recipes are unbelievably cheap and delicious. From Beetroot Chocolate Loaf Cake to Mushroom and Spinach Bolognese, Jack is unafraid to tackle innovative recipes but also shows us how to recreate old favourites in the thriftiest way possible.

Fancy Veganuary: Minimalist Baker 

This is my all time favourite go-to website for vegan recipes. Everything Dana and John create is beautifully presented and exciting to look at, especially when you’re on the third day of a batch of five bean chilli. While  some of the ingredients used are expensive, this is a great site for inspiration, or if you’re in the mood to try something different.

Not really Veganuary: Lorraine Pascale 

Lorraine Pascale isn’t a Vegan but she often puts together vegan recipes, and more importantly she’s one of the most inspiring women I follow on instagram. Lorraine’s philosophy on life centres around self love, positivity and eating well. Oh, and her work out pics are enough to make you drag yourself out of bed and get down to the gym!

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Amsterdam

I am so excited to be visiting my friend Carys whose studying in Amsterdam. I’ve already booked my tickets to Anne Franke’s house and she’s promised to show me around all the main sights like Amsterdam square and the Red Light District, as well as the other museums of course. Amsterdam’s somewhere that I’ve wanted to visit for ages as it seems to have a unique charm, different to anywhere else I’ve been in Europe.

Ski Season 

Ski season is upon us and although I have all the coordination of a baby gazelle I will be attempting to get myself down some mountains in one piece (namely in Lex Deux Alpes and Chamrousse).

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Mindfulness, Meditation and Me Time

Sometimes, being control of the way you feel can be an endless uphill struggle. As I intermittently write about mental health it will be no surprise that I’m vowing to spend less time on social media and more time  doing things that will benefit my brain (or allow it to calm the fuck down every once in a while). I would love for this to be the year that I actually learn how to meditate and enjoy it properly.

So do I think of a new year as a new start? Not really, but I do think of it as a chance to get back to the way I really want to live. Good food, travel, creativity and calmness seem like a great way to kickstart the year after a hangover of negativity from the end of 2015.

Hope you all had a wonderful new year, and I can’t wait to see what 2016 brings.

Dita

 

 

 

Festive Bake: Sacher Torte

Over Christmas I always get back into baking, and this year I decided to make a dark chocolate cake that is super indulgent without being full of sugar . The Sacher Torte is an Austrain cake which is dense and packed full of flavour from the dark chocolate, espresso and apricot jam. The cake was fairly simple to make, with just the issue of separating the eggs and adding the whites and yolks separately making it slightly more time consuming than an average sponge.

I followed this recipe from Good Housekeeping, although I didn’t do the icing as I didn’t want it to be overly sweet. I found some other recipes which look just as good like this one from BBC Food and this one from Delia online. Overall, this is a perfect occasion cake which doesn’t need to much expertise in the kitchen.

 

 

 

 

Semester One Highlights

Semester one has passed in a blur so I thought I’d share some travel highlights from these past three months.

  1. The bastille has to be number one seeing as it’s tourist mecca for Grenoble (and the views are so worth it).
  2. The crystal clear water of Lake Geneva was breathtaking.
  3. My absolute favourite picture from the first semester. Chamonix is one of the most postcard perfect places I’ve ever been to.
  4. Quaint and cute vibes in Chamonix town centre.
  5. Paragliding in Chamonix which I wrote about here .
  6. Visiting my friend Alex in Toulouse was such a fun weekend away and we got to eat baguettes in front of this stunning view of the Lake Garonne.
  7. This doesn’t quite fit in with the theme of my other pictures but Christmas in Grenoble was pretty festive so I wanted to include this shot of the carousel, which was stationed in Place Grenette.