Managing Mental Health Abroad

Montreal has to be the most beautiful metropolis I’ve ever visited

Studying abroad is one of the most exciting, and amazing experiences you’ll ever have, but it is not always easy, especially if you are living with a mental illness. Moving to a new country is exciting but the highs can often be accompanied by lows. Relearning how to live your life in a new place can be a stressful experience but a few simple steps can help smooth everything go smoothly. 

I am a third-year game programming major studying in Montreal. Last semester I was at Abertay University in Scotland. I have dealt with the stress of moving to a new place, meeting new people, and finding a routine while living with depression. I had an amazing time in Scotland and am already loving Montreal. While depression makes many things more difficult, there was no way I was going to let it stop me from fulfilling my dream of studying abroad. 

Before You Leave:

Get your meds worked out beforehand

If you take medications to help you manage your mental illness it’s best to bring them with you. US prescriptions usually can’t be filled in Canada so you would have to go through the hassle of seeing a local doctor for a new script. Luckily you’ll be able to pick up a six-month supply of medication by applying for a travel override in advance. You’ll usually need to visit the pharmacy the day you travel to get the extended supply so plan accordingly. 

I wish I had started looking into meds sooner. I only started looking into medications a few weeks before I left so I never had time to figure out what would work for me. Getting used to new medications while being three thousand miles from home is not an experience I’d like to repeat. Moving to a new country is a big enough change, so it’s best to not pile on by trying new meds at the same time.

If you are thinking that medications may help you manage your mental health, talk to your doctor asap. Don’t wait until the last possible minute as I did. Most psychiatric medications don’t kick in for a few months and you may need to try multiple before you find one that works for you. Being in a familiar place where you can easily go see your doctor makes figuring out meds easier. 

If you are already in another country and struggling with mental health, don’t be discouraged. Your insurance covers visiting a doctor or other mental health professionals in your new home. Call the number listed on your travel insurance for more information. 

Manage Your Expectations 

I’ve looked forward to studying in Europe for as long as I could remember. I imagined finding myself inside a James Herriot book, while somehow still flying off to Rome for gelato every weekend. I was excited to learn the local languages and customs and make a million amazing friends. 

My dorms in Scotland may have been former tenement housing but they were still home

When I arrived in Dundee I was met with cold drizzle and a very grim taxi driver who told me proudly that my new home was the heroin capital of Europe. A little terrified and discouraged, I was dropped off on a damp abandoned street that looked like something out of a horror movie. My apartment was empty, and I had no idea where to find stores. I was in a strange country where I knew no one and I didn’t even have any toilet paper. It wasn’t the quaint fairyland I had imagined but it turned out to be something much better. 

Of course, the arrival experience is much different at Champlain programs. As soon as I arrived in Montreal, I was greeted by the RA’s and wonderful Montreal staff who spent the first three days helping us get acquainted with the city through planned activities like scavenger hunts. After orientation, we all knew where things were and how to use the metro to get around. Champlain programs are definitely less stressful since you can count on someone being there to help you get your feet under you. 

Once I saw my city in the light of day, I realized that it was like any other place. Flawed, somewhat dirty, and altogether amazing. I ended up making good friends and enjoying my experience but didn’t get to fly off to Paris every other weekend. 

Post-industrial history is rich and beautiful

Studying abroad will not be as you imagine it. Real places aren’t the glossy photos on brochures but they are something better: real. Not everything will be easy or perfect abroad. You’ll still be in school and still need to live within a budget. You probably can’t jet-set around the content. You’ll still be you, with all the same mental health issues. But, the chance to live in another culture, is worth it all. Visiting a place for a few days is one thing, but it is not until you live there long enough to embrace its flaws can you truly love it.

Once You Arrive:

The gay village on St Catrine Street is packed with all the comedy music and brunch you could want

Establish a Routine 

Moving abroad resets your entire routine. Your sleep schedule may be off due to jet lag, and you no longer have access to that little Burlington coffee shop where you grabbed coffee every morning. Without our routines, many of us feel adrift so, when you get abroad, try to establish new healthy patterns as soon as you can. If you are jetlagged adjust to the local time asap. Plan to eat meals at regular times (and buy healthy food). Figure out a system that works for you. If your routine back home worked for you don’t scrap it. If going for a run and getting coffee helped you feel stable back home, keep doing it once you get abroad. 

Get Enough Sleep

Montreal is dreamy, but it’s no replacement for a good night’s sleep

In Montreal, you will probably have fewer morning classes than you did in Burlington (No classes before 10 am!). I love this since I am a night owl but it can be a double-edged sword. It’s easy to fall into bad habits when you technically don’t need to get out of bed until 2:00 pm. Laying around all day and staying up all night is not a recipe for great mental health (I know, I’ve tried it). Having a super irregular sleep schedule (you know what I’m talking about) is a bad idea according to sleep experts. Try to go to bed and get up at roughly the same time each day. 

Lack of sleep can be a huge trigger for many people with mental illness. Losing a few hours can easily turn a good day into a bad one. If this is the case for you, get enough rest. When you have a mental illness you can’t afford to sacrifice sleep to meet a deadline. 

Get outside

With metro’s this nice, it’s easy to stay underground too much

Montreal has an awesome metro system which means you can get all the way from your bed to class while only spending about 30 seconds outside. While this is great, especially in cold weather, it makes it a little too easy to turn into a mole person. 

Fresh air, sunshine, and exercise are all good for your mental health. Working a little outdoor time into your routine is also a great way to cope with stress. One third-year producer told me “At first I was staying in my room all day, but I realized that was making me feel terrible. Now I try to go outside on a walk for 30 minutes each day. I make a playlist of my favorite songs and when it starts to repeat I know it’s time to turn around.” Montreal has plenty to see and do, so drag yourself out of bed and wander.

Join Local Organizations 

Being separated from your friend group and organizations can be one of the hardest parts of studying abroad. Staying involved in activities your old activities can help maintain your sanity. A third-year IT major studying in Montreal recommends: “If you were a member of a club or church back home, find a local chapter to join.” I am an avid rock climber, so finding a gym always goes a long way to making me feel comfortable in a new city. 

Joining a local church or other organization can help you stay connected

Take Care of Yourself

I’m doing the Ubisoft Game Lab competition this spring. It is an exciting, amazing, and incredibly stressful experience. In Production 2, especially the Ubisoft competition, you may find yourself under intense pressure to work insane hours and meet impossible deadlines. You need to push back and establish boundaries. I know it’s hard, I hate conflict too, but when you have a mental illness (and even if you don’t) pushing yourself to the limit just isn’t safe. Once you are in the working world you will need to set boundaries and maintain a healthy work-life balance. It’s a good idea to start practicing now. You are more important than winning. 

Get help when you need it

One last tip: If you need help, reach out. Canada has a great mental health infrastructure. If you need to see a doctor or therapist Champlain can help. The school has a list of vetted mental health practitioners who are covered by our insurance. You can find their information on the Montreal abroad google site as well as several phone numbers to call for help. 

More General Advice
Prepare to Go Abroad by Learning a Little of the Local Language
Montréal Culture: Books, Movies, and More!
Irish Culture: Books, Movies, and More!