Brain Waves: What I wish I knew

Brain Waves: What I wish I knew

Sarah Levinson, Contributing Columnist

If you were to look at my Instagram or Facebook pages right now, you would see exactly what you expect from a college student who studied abroad. Pictures of me in 10 different countries, throwing sorority signs atop mountains, and trying new foods—seemingly having the time of my life. Ironically, photographs don’t always give the full picture and often mask the less positive aspects of living thousands of miles away from home.

As someone who has just returned from studying abroad, I want to share an honest account of what my experience actually looked like and what I wish someone had told me before I left.

First, mental health problems do not disappear when you cross an ocean.

As self-explanatory as this sounds, I wish someone had told me that study abroad could not serve as a substitute for mental health care.

I have struggled with my mental health on and off during my three years at Tulane, going through cycles of anxiety and depression that generally reach a peak level of intensity a few weeks after midterms. Anxiety in the fall, depression in the spring, or whatever new pattern life throws at me. After a particularly rough bout of anxiety last semester, I had hoped going abroad would be my escape—I would distance myself from the stressors at Tulane and completely immerse myself in travel. After all, everyone who I knew who had studied abroad talked about how wonderful it is to live in another place, travel constantly and take the easiest classes of your college career.

“Life will be easier,” they said, “there will be less to worry about.” But when I found myself sobbing in the middle of my Hungarian dorm hallway at midnight on a Wednesday, I realized I had failed to recognize that anxiety and depression do not disappear with a change of scenery. I found my mental illnesses manifesting in different ways.

This was due in some part to the simple fact that things will go wrong—the second thing I wish I knew.

Before my trip abroad, I was careful to plan for the future. I would study abroad in a city I could afford, apply for summer internships before I left and carefully plan my semester to maximize travel and finances. Unfortunately, due to a series of circumstances at home and abroad, including being rejected from every internship I applied to, being an easy target for pickpocketing, being fined on public transportation constantly (pro tip: ALWAYS buy a metro ticket) and feeling isolated and exhausted from traveling too much, I found myself far behind on both my mental and financial goals.

I thought I was alone in my depression, the only student feeling impacted during my time abroad. I assumed that study abroad fixed mental health problems or that only mentally healthy people study abroad.

This leads to the third thing—you’re not alone.

As cliche as it sounds, even when you’re 5000 miles away from home, people still care. After I was pickpocketed during a weekend trip and lost access to money for three weeks, people on my program were quick to help me file police reports, cancel my credit cards and give me emergency loans until my new credit cards came.

Even more, I have found that on the occasions I have chosen to reach out, I have always been pleasantly surprised by the long-distance support I’ve found in the Tulane community.

But most importantly, studying abroad is worth it. And so are you.

Before I went abroad, people who had traveled overseas told me I would have a life-changing semester where I would experience miraculous personal growth. In the moment, it’s difficult to see those changes manifest. But with time and introspection, I have noticed subtle transformations. I am much more comfortable alone. I am more confident. I have visited more countries during that semester than I ever had up until this point. I have survived the unexpected challenges that life threw at me so far away from my family and friends.

Yes, I have been struggling. I wish someone had told me that nothing—even studying abroad—will be overwhelmingly positive every day. But experiencing trials overseas has helped me find solidarity in unexpected places, grow more confident in my own strength and resilience and learn to keep fighting through the bad days, because the good days are pretty damn great.

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