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.

Dropping out of Uni – Two and a Half Years On

A couple of weeks ago one of my favourite bloggers, Katie Oldham wrote a post featuring seven university ‘drop out’ stories, including her own. This inspired me to think back to my own drop out story and consider all the things i’ve achieved since I made that difficult decision.

  1. Confidence. My confidence has improved tenfold since I started trying to make decisions that are right for me.
  2. Travelling. Quitting uni made me think about what’s important to me and one of the main things is travel. I went back to Mauritius after almost ten years to connect with the island again and spend time with my family. I went on badly planned trips in Europe with my best friend. I’ve been to rainy English beaches and the glorious English countryside and appreciated each experience even more than the last.
  3. Restarting uni the following academic year and accepting that it’s ok to start over.
  4. Studying a course that I actually enjoy.
  5. Moving abroad – I honestly never thought i’d be able to do this and I don’t think I would have done if it wasn’t a part of my degree but so far its been one of the best, and most challenging experiences of my life.
  6. Volunteering – supporting a cause that I believe in has become and important part of my life and something that I want to continue doing.
  7. Finding practical solutions to combat anxiety : walking, reading, writing, meditating, mindfulness. All of these work for me in some capacity but the hardest part is remembering to do them.

Nowadays university is seen as the norm and we’re pushed into making huge decisions about our lives when we’re barely even eighteen. I still consider university to be the right path for me, but I think that most young people need a lot more time than we’re given to think about what decisions to make about the future.

University Admin in France

So far organising university has been an absolute nightmare. Never before have I been so grateful for the UK system, which normally involves one form, and potentially a couple of e-mails between you and your tutor if there is a timetable clash.

Modules 

I chose all of my modules before I arrived in France only to realise once I actually got here that they hadn’t been registered, so I had to redo the process. I then faced a room of folders, and stressed out Erasmus students, where I had to find each individual module and check that it didn’t clash with any of my other choices, thereby putting together my own timetable. Added to this was the issue that the most popular courses had been filled earlier in the day, and so I couldn’t do many of my original choices. Luckily, I now have a grace period of two weeks to try out my classes and register any changes I would like to make. That being said, I’ll probably just stick it out as I’m terrified of undertaking any more paperwork and negotiations.

ECTS 

ECTS stands for European Credit Transfer System, which is the system whereby EU students can obtain the appropriate number of credits whilst studying abroad. Each semester I have to obtain 30 ECTS. When I was navigating the aforementioned room of folders I was generally confused as to the number of credits each course was worth, so I just signed up for what I thought was an appropriate amount, and decided to research the courses properly afterwards. This stupid logic has left me with a timetable of around 40 credits so I need to sit down and decide what I’m actually turning up to (before tomorrow morning).

Assessment 

No one seemed to know how each course was assessed and I’ve been advised to ask my lecturers when I get to class. I am just praying that I haven’t got ten modules worth of exams after christmas.

On the bright side, all Erasmus students are in the same position, and everyone else seems to be as confused by the system as I am. I had also been warned about the differences between UK and French university systems by my home university, so this hasn’t come as too much of a shock. At the moment the language barrier is adding to the lack of transparency, so I’m hoping that as I become more confident with speaking French I will begin to find these situations easier to navigate.

Thoughts on Revision (or lack of)

Considering I am procrastinating by writing this and have absolutely no motivation to revise I am probably not the right person to offer advice about revision. However, like everyone else I have been trying to revise for things since I was about 12 and I used to care a lot more/ be more dedicated so here are a few things I have learnt:

  1. There is no optimum time to revise

I have been told so many times to ‘revise at the time of day which suits me best’. I assume this works for some people but personally I feel equally unmotivated at all times of the day so what I have learnt is that you just have to ignore your half hearted excuses and get on with it.

  1. Ignore the people who live in the library at exam time

Just ignore them. Firstly, comparing yourself to people who revise more than you is pointless. Secondly, there is no way on earth that you need to sacrifice a month of you life living in the library in order to get decent marks. If anything its counter productive because these people often neglect to look after themselves and end up having a caffeine fuelled breakdown anyway.

  1. Mental wellbeing during exam time is vital

Exercise, go outside, eat healthily, keep attending hobbies and seeing friends. Granted, some people will tell you this is a waste of time but I think a healthy mind set contributes to a good exam performance.

  1. Knowledge is cumulative 

As someone who is anxious about exams I ‘worst case scenario’ a lot. E.g. ‘I’m going to fail the year and spend my summer revising’ or ‘this information never going into my brain’. One thing that a friend reminded me of recently is that how well you do on an exam isn’t just based on the exam period itself. If you’ve gone to most of the lectures and done most of the work, with some revision you should be in a good position to tackle the exam and do well.

Why I Dropped Out Of University

I hate the term ‘drop out’. Every time someone asks me why I ‘dropped out’ it makes me feel like a failure all over again. Mostly because people just can’t believe it. Why would you leave a top five UK university? From an outside perspective, it just doesn’t make sense. But if my experience taught me anything, it’s that there are hundreds of other students who are probably feeling miserable, inadequate and stressed right now at the thought of another year of academia.

Having studied at a comprehensive school and sixth form I immediately found myself a minority at my university. Although my background is that of the average Brit, the culture shock I experienced is undeniable. Our education system means that a significant proportion of students at the top UK universities are from the 7-8% of the population who are privately educated, which can make an average teenager feel incredibly out of their depth.

As a world -renowned institution, it goes without saying that the university I went to has a competitive environment. However, the sheer level of competition breeds a culture in which students are expected to push themselves to their absolute limit to not only succeed, but also outdo their fellow course mates. It seemed as though mental health disorders such as anxiety were accepted as a normal side effect of being highly functional academically. Excuse me if I’m being radical here but I was raised being taught to value my health and wellbeing over an exam result. Throughout the year I felt unsupported both academically and personally, and the overwhelming attitude I experienced was that struggling to cope equated academic inferiority. Eventually I made the controversial decision to leave, and my life has been all the better for it.