Day 3 and we’re halfway through the week – that beautiful Bank Holiday weekend is almost tangible! Here’s another guest post about taking care of your mental health while you’re away from home. – Muireann
So you’re here in Limerick making new friends, improving your language skills, studying interesting subjects and experiencing a new people and culture as part of your ERASMUS or Study Abroad experience. This is probably one of the best times of your life and you know you’re lucky because you are studying in one of the best universities for international students in the world – UL!
However, there can be some downsides to living away from home. It’s not all parties and travelling! Erasmus can be lonely and difficult. Sometimes you will have bad days. It can be something as simple as missing your mother’s cooking or your favourite food or TV show or boyfriend or girlfriend. You may suffer from homesickness, which is normal and a lot more common than you think! Language barriers can be very problematic too, but you soon learn the power of hand gestures! Culture shock is unfortunately unavoidable. No matter where you go, you will notice some small, and big, differences between cultures. It can be different ways of greeting people, or finding the weather hard to adjust too.
Most of these feelings will pass with time as you make friends and become more comfortable in your new environment. You get used to the currency, understand the transport system, find your lectures, and make fun and multi-cultural friends! The key to a successful Erasmus is to be brave and confident, try new things and to take care of your-self.
But while we are very conscious about our physical health, we often don’t take care of our mental health. Sometimes your Erasmus experience isn’t as fun as you expected, sometimes the homesickness is persistent, and sometimes you find it hard to make new friends. Believe me, I know. I went to Vienna, Austria for my year-long ERASMUS experience. It’s a fantastic city with a vibrant culture and interesting people. I made some close friends with whom I am still in contact, improved my German, studied new subject areas, and experienced Austrian culture. However, when I think about my ERASMUS experience, I often feel very sad because that year was the most difficult year of my life.
While I was there, my parents split up and then, we lost our house. I found this out in October, at the start of my experience and even now, two years later, I am still coming to terms with what happened. The year was a blur. I felt alone, isolated, lethargic, exhausted, and to be honest, very depressed. Nowadays, I am a very different person in comparison to the lost, sad person I was back then. When I think about how I managed my mental health, I can see my biggest mistake. I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling. Instead, I kept all my feelings in, but they just got worse and worse.
Some of my friends in Austria knew what had happened, but they didn’t really know how much my parent’s separation was affecting me. Why didn’t I tell anyone? Well, I thought that either:
a/ they wouldn’t understand,
b/ they wouldn’t care,
c/ my friends had their own problems,
d/ and they wouldn’t be able to help me anyway.
I also didn’t tell my family much because I felt a lot of guilt. I had this fantastic opportunity to enjoy a different culture, but my family were at home with no distractions. I felt like I had abandoned them. I was stuck in Austria and I couldn’t go home and support my family. Equally, my family were in Ireland and couldn’t support me. Skype helped to some extent but it doesn’t replace a mother’s hug! I should have realised that bottling up my feelings was making me quite sick. I found it hard to get out of bed in the morning, I could sleep for hours and hours, I lost interest in things that I used to love, I was over-eating and I hated being alone because that was when my thoughts got worse. It also began to seriously affect me academically.
It was so unlike my personality. I am a very happy and positive person. I am patient and understanding. I always encouraged my friends to share their problems with me. However, when it was my turn to share my problems, I felt paralysed. It was easy to keep my thoughts to myself because all of my friends were at home in Ireland. It was easy to hide behind Facebook. But it was a very stupid thing to do and my biggest regret is that I didn’t seek help sooner, because it ruined my Erasmus year, and my negative thoughts were consuming me.
By May, things were very bad. I felt really low and was beginning to get anxiety attacks. However, a friend encouraged me to contact the Erasmus office here in UL. I did but basically exploded! I wrote them a long email detailing all of my thoughts – probably too detailed! – but all of a sudden, I had support. Someone knew and could help. The UL Erasmus office was fantastic. They took me seriously, even though they had no proof of how much I was suffering or whether I was telling the truth. They told me to do my best in terms of classes, and to seek out counselling. I also told my mother and even though, it really hurt her, she supported me. I just wanted to jump on the first plane home but with their support, I went to a counsellor.
To be honest, it didn’t really help. The counsellor listened to me but when I was finished, she gave me the name of a 24-hour pharmacy where I could get some Xanax. That was not what I wanted. What I needed was to talk to someone, not to take something. However, the end was in sight, and I just about got through the end of term exams, although I missed one or two. I nearly failed the whole year, but thankfully UL were very supportive and gave me options so I could return to university.
However, I wasn’t ready. As I had been in pain for so long, I needed a break. So I took a year out of my course, stayed at home, worked and began to deal with everything I had tried to ignore. I started counselling in my town, which was much better than the counsellor in Vienna – thankfully! It really began to help me, and I am now continuing counselling here in UL. They couldn’t be more helpful and understanding, and I am finally feeling like I am taking care of myself: physically, emotionally and mentally.
The only regret I have was that I didn’t tell my loved ones sooner. If I had, maybe things wouldn’t have become so serious. I also learnt that your friends and family really are there for you, no matter what. Even if they can’t fix things, a friendly smile or an understanding hug can make a huge difference. So if you’re a student here in UL, finding things a bit hard, please go talk to someone. Like they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. It just took me a bit longer to realise that.