The most important mental health trick for study abroad students

While living in Morocco, I was having tea with a woman named Farah who had recently sent her daughter to study abroad in the United States. Having done her own graduate schooling there, she was perfectly familiar with what living abroad entails.

Farah had a lot of truly incredible insights about study abroad and living in a different country, but one big one really stuck with me. It had to do with study abroad mental health, and how many students get in the way of their own success.

“The problem with how your generation does study abroad,” she told me, “is technology.” I almost tuned out of the conversation right then and there to avoid another lecture on the trouble with millennials, but I kept listening. And I’m glad I did.

“When I studied abroad, there was no skype, there was no texting. If you wanted to talk to your friends or family back home you wrote a letter and you waited six weeks for your reply. There was no live updating or constant contact. When you went abroad, you were truly on your own.”

The impact this had on students’ experiences, she explained, was huge. Students who never had to rely on their host families or their local friends never learned to truly trust and rely on anyone in their new home country. It exacerbated their loneliness and caused them to cling even harder to their friends and family back home. It left them unable to feel truly understood, because the people in their host country didn’t fully understand their stress about things that were different from life back home, and the people back home didn’t understand the things they were experiencing abroad. It was terrible for students’ mental health.

It was isolating.

It also prevented them from developing a real understanding of their new cultural context.

In a Western European country where everyone comes from a relatively similar cultural background, this may not seem like a big deal, but in Morocco, where American students often experience a great deal of culture shock, it makes a big difference. Because Moroccan friends and family are able to help students place their experiences into the cultural context of the host country.

Take, for example, street harassment, a subject Farah is an expert on. Many people on my study abroad program were shocked and appalled by the level of street harassment in the Rabat medina. There were lewd comments made, asses smacked, classmates followed home again and again.

Students felt persistently unsafe and threatened, and their mental health suffered.

But street harassment was something that our friends and family in Morocco dealt with every day. They had spent years learning to shut down men on the street and to differentiate between common harassment and truly threatening behavior. They were experts in the cultural context of what was happening to us. But, as Farah explained to me, we were relying so heavily on our friends back home, and letting them tell us how to react, that we were struggling to let our new families teach us to adapt.

So what’s the lesson here?

If you want to maintain your mental health while studying abroad, realize that understanding is built and not achieved.

Start talking to your in-country friends and family about the little things right from the get go and let them learn who you and and how you handle things. Let them get to know you. Don’t wait until you’re in a bad place to start trying to build trust and understanding. Instead, recognize that while your new family are the experts on your host country, they need a bit of time to learn where you’re coming from and how you fit into their home if they’re going to be a part of your support system.

Study abroad can be so beautiful and transformative, but it can also be a difficult experience for even the best prepared students. So in addition to mentally preparing yourself with contextualization exercises, make things easier on yourself by following Farah’s advice:

Try to stay mentally present in your host country and don’t let the folks back home become your main source of advice. Instead, take your cues from your new friends and host family and start laying the groundwork for a mentally healthy study abroad experience right from day one.

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