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 ĂŞtes 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.

Les journĂ©es nationales de deuil

This week France has been recovering from the catastrophic events of last weekend in Paris. François Hollande declared three national days of mourning to allow the reeling citizens of the republic to attempt to come to terms with the tragedy which had struck. There are many eloquent and thought provoking responses that have been written, as well as messages of hope and humanity. Whilst I don’t feel politically knowledgable enough to share an analysis of the situation, I would like to share the sense of bravery and love which I have experienced over the past few days.

On Monday I attended a minutes silence on my university campus at midday. The silence amongst the hundreds gathered felt more powerful than any words that could have been spoken at that time. As the silence came to an end, no one moved and instead gentle clapping rippled through the crowd. It was a respectful tribute to the lives lost and an encouragement for France to continue living by its national slogan of ‘LibertĂ©, EgalitĂ©, FraternitĂ©’.

minutes silence

On Wednesday I went to the theatre and slotted inside the program was a powerful message of defiance in the face of terrorist attacks which threaten our way of life, specifically defending our ability to gather in public places.

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This week has been filled with an overwhelming amount of love and generosity in response to the attacks, both in day to day life and on social media. In my eyes, every moment of sadness, reflection and love is for every life lost and every person who suffers. Solidarity and compassion alone will strengthen us as a global society.

Dressing for Success

sherinaspeaks

“Students may have been rebelling against school-imposed dress codes for decades, but observers say the fact that those protests are now making national headlines suggests a fundamental shift in social attitudes,” writes Michelle McQuigge in The Canadian Press.

The latest protest to make headlines was an Ontario school’s “Crop Top Day”, organized by student Alexi Halket who was told her cropped shirt was unacceptable school attire. When I first read about this protest, I was glad it was making headlines because, as McQuigge writes, “…individual incidents become part of an ongoing, global conversation about complex issues such as freedom of expression, cultural identity, and sexual consent.”

The global conversation that has ensued has been enlightening, but not in an entirely positive way. Many people have commented on articles about the Crop Top Day, saying that young women need to have self respect in what they wear. A quick Google search…

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Reflections on #FucktheTories

Warwick for Free Education

CEpPdTRW0AEJC-p Photo credit to Oscar Webb

Hope Worsdale

To those who are arguing that people don’t have a right to protest against a government that was “democratically” voted in: Yes we do. This is a government which is waging war on the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the unemployed, immigrants, students, single mums and the unemployed, with devastating consequences. If you think that a party who was voted in by 24% of the electorate should somehow be untouchable to criticism, then you seriously need to reconsider what the hell you think democracy is. Not to mention the fact that some of society’s most vulnerable (e.g many people without citizen status) aren’t even allowed to vote. We need to abolish this ridiculous attitude that the sum total of democracy is a broken, unfair and exclusive voting system, which is headed up by an elitist group of predominantly white men. Representative democracy?…

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Selection day: prison, self determination and sexism 

Selection day for the Samaritans

The only way I can describe how I feel right now is emotionally drained. I’ve just been for a selection day with the Samaritans and it’s been really challenging emotionally, but also super thought provoking. For those of you who may not know, the Samaritans is a charity which provides support for people in emotional distress over the phone and through various other methods. 


We had to complete a form which asked us to rate our feelings on a range of statements about suicide. Within ten minutes introductions had been made and we were sat in a circle discussing a series of controversial statement cards which featured topics such as suicide, prisons and sexism. Of course I couldn’t resist arguing my corner in every topic, seeing as they’re all things I feel strongly about. I think the one that affected me the most was ‘there are too many people in prisons’ because I think the privatisation of the prison system and resulting financial incentive is immoral. One thing I learnt is that my opinion that prison should be primarily for the purpose of rehabilitation is a minority view. The conversations were really interesting and allowed us to get to know each other as a group extremely quickly! 


Next I was taken into a room for an interview where I was asked questions such as why do I want to volunteer for the Samaritans, what qualities do I have that would make me a good Samaritan, what attracted me to the charity etc. I was also asked to describe a difficult situation I’ve been through and how I managed to get through it. These questions were clearly more personal than the average job interview and at times I found them quite challenging. 


After I returned from the interview we had lunch and moved on to an exercise where we rated the qualities needed to be a Samaritan in order of importance; this was quite difficult because  there’s obviously a lot of qualities needed and it was made clear that there isn’t strictly a right or wrong answer. After that we moved on talking about what makes an offender and did a tongue in cheek survey to show how many petty crimes we’ve committed and how easy it is to become an offender. We then did the ‘who to save’ exercise where we were given a range of people at risk of drowning and told we could only save two. This demonstrated how hard it is to choose between life and death and highlighted the Samaritan’s principle of self determination which means we would never have to make that decision. 


Overall the day was eye opening and definitely gave an insight into the great work of the charity.