Study Abroad and Mental Health: a Less Cheerful but Still Important Post.

In what has to be a personal best in terms of putting things off, I have neglected this blog for a whole 9 months. Oops! Instead of attempting an awkward apology riddled with excuses, however, I want to explain why I’ve been so off the radar for so long.

It started with the sense that writing a blog about how well everything was going might not be the most helpful or sensitive thing to do while I was very aware that many of those around me (especially in the virtual world of Facebook) were not all having such a wonderful time. It then became a problem of me actually not having such a great time and being at a loss for what to post at all.

This is a post which I hope gives an honest account of what a large part of this year has been like for me.

It is also a post which I hesitated about writing – not only because I’m not accustomed to sharing such personal details online, but also because it is about mental health, something which is still fairly misunderstood and stigmatised around the world. So yes. To cut to the chase: this post is about my struggles with mental health this year. It is not something I am used to writing about – in fact, it’s something I’m barely used to talking about – but to write anything else at this point would feel like a lie.

In particular, I feel that while it is important that blogs like this highlight the great things about studying abroad, this is somewhat problematic since in reality, time spent abroad is just that: another period in your life in which great, terrible and simply mediocre things occur just as they would at any other time – except you’re in another country.

Having spoken to many students who have studied abroad in years before me, I am aware that struggles with mental health during the year abroad are not rare. Whether this is related to study abroad or not is not something I seek to address here. However, since as far as I remember, mental health was not one of the topics covered during our pre-departure orientation at Edinburgh, it is something I hope to bring up with the International Office upon my return. Just as we are told to look out for and know how to get help when our physical health is in danger, so should we be given appropriate advice concerning our mental health.

So. Time to explain!

While throughout the year I’ve been blessed with a beautiful place to study, amazing friends around me and the simple joy of being in Japan (where better to study Japanese?!), I had quite a rough period from around Christmas to about a couple of months ago during which I experienced depression and at times anxiety. Although I think there were a fair few contributing factors, probably the most significant one was the amount of stress I putting myself under – and indeed had been doing so consistently for some years.

Those who know me from Edinburgh (maybe even school) will know that I tend to be pretty busy most of the time doing vaguely ludicrous things like holding down 3 part time jobs while also helping run a university society, taking piano lessons, being a class representative, being in a band…oh, and while also attempting to study at the same time!

Last year’s autumn semester was no different. While being enrolled in intensive Japanese classes at my exchange university, I was also attending taiko classes twice a month and doing tennis practice (followed by dinner) with my tennis circle twice a week. Add in the fact that I was taking maximum credits while also keeping pretty busy socially, and I didn’t really have much more than the occasional Saturday morning to myself to relax (read: to wake up at 6am because of my screaming host brother and sister and then spend most of the morning trying to reply to long neglected Facebook messages/email chains).

While I don’t think I would have described myself as stressed at the time (“Just busy!”), it got to the point where I was taking several hours to get to sleep just because I couldn’t stop thinking about all the stuff I was meant to be doing. With a brain requiring extra sleep to process all the Japanese it was trying absorb, along with a body which wasn’t used to the Japanese climate (as well as waking up at 6:45am to go to university!), this was the perfect formula for sleep deprivation. In fact, now I think of it, my lack of sleep may have been the biggest factor. Sleep is important!

Anyway, the long and short of it is, I underestimated the effect my incessant busyness was having on my mental health, and spent a good few months (at least) depressed and at times anxious. I stopped contributing in class, stopped even doing my homework at times (honestly the first time in my life), suffered a complete loss of appetite (also a first!), was prone to crying at random points throughout the day, felt exhausted no matter how much I slept, and was constantly weighed down by a whole host of nasty thoughts and feelings which I would rather not revisit in this post.

My response? To try and reduce the amount of obligations I had. I quit my tennis circle, signed up for the minimum number of credits for spring semester, generally tried to stop filling my weekly schedule to bursting point, and decided that if there was one thing that could go on hold completely, it was this blog (sorry, International Office!). I also spent quite a lot of the winter/spring holiday just resting at home without going travelling, which in a way I regret, but it was probably a good idea if only because it helped me catch up on sleep (again, super important!).

The other problem, however, was that having created so much free time for myself, I had plenty of time to just mull things over. Having decided a while back that while in Japan I may as well try looking for a job for after graduation (jobhunting here is done much further in advance than in the UK), I was trying to think about what kind of job I’d like to do, as well as what it would be like working instead of studying here.

While I think most people struggle to think about questions like this, my problem was that I simply couldn’t think about the future. It’s hard to describe, but it felt like my timeline stopped at the present day and the view ahead was simply blocked. As someone who loves to plan ahead and usually has countless ideas about how the future may pan out, this was unsettling to say the least, and I felt almost as if I had lost my former self.

I don’t remember when it was, but at some point when talking to my dad, he told me that a lot of people towards the end of university feel very anxious about the future, the reason being that when you are a student, you are essentially at the top of a long chain which extends all the way back from when you were at primary school. I suppose it would make more sense to call it a hierarchy, but anyway, as someone searching for a graduate job, you find yourself suddenly at the very bottom of yet another long chain. You have little to no experience. You most likely don’t even know what you want to do. You may feel that you don’t even want to be part of this chain.

And so on.

I’ve no idea how this resonates with other people with experience of depression and anxiety, but at least for me, it’s something I can empathise with quite strongly. I suppose as someone who has always been pretty engrossed in education, the idea of leaving it for the world of work and finding myself at the bottom of that chain is, to a degree, somewhat scary!

Now, having managed to go from feeling pretty awful every day for a very long time to feeling average/good the majority of days, I realise I am one of the lucky ones. For many people, it isn’t that quick or easy a process. However, being blessed with wonderful people around me, living in an amazing country where I get to be surrounded by the language I love, and also being lucky enough to have friends very clued up on mental health who have been able to provide me with invaluable support (even from across the globe!), I’ve been able to find my way back to feeling somewhat normal within a relatively short period of time. I still have moments most days when I feel like my mood is in danger of spiralling back down, and the likelihood is this isn’t the last I’ll see of depression and anxiety, but these moments are getter steadily fewer and farther between, and at least having got this much better once means I know I can do it again if need be!

(Note: This is just how things are for me, and I probably wasn’t anywhere near as depressed or anxious as a lot of other people are. Just as with anything else, these things really vary from person to person.)

In terms of how this affects my feelings about my year abroad, it would be dishonest to not admit that there will is something of a sore point when looking back over my year here. However, I hope to continue from now on with a better understanding of myself, my limits and – most of all – the importance of sleep to take on the challenge that is 4th year and hopefully manage to get a job in Japan for after graduation!

Oh, and for those people who know me – there is absolutely no need to tiptoe round asking about my year abroad or anything related to what’s written here. I’m still me, I still have loads of stuff I’ll probably be BURSTING to tell you when I get back (apologies in advance for starting every sentence for the first few months with “In Japan…”/”When I was in Japan…”), and I’m most definitely open to talk about mental health (not that I’m an expert or anything) should that be something you want to talk about.

Which reminds me.

The words ‘depressed’ and ‘anxious’ are ones which we use a lot in English to describe feelings which don’t give a very good idea of what depression and anxiety are like. I did want to try and find some good articles/websites to try and explain a bit more what they are like for those who are unsure, but unfortunately I’m meant to be leaving the house in about an hour, so have run out of time! If you are unsure, there is a lot of good information out there, so please take the time to look.

On which note, farewell until next time (when hopefully things will be a bit more lighthearted) and be sure to prioritise that ever-so-important SLEEP wherever possible!

Take care of yourself 🙂

Bai bai~

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