Depression and Traveling is often not two words that you put together in the same sentence. But depression while traveling is a very real struggle that needs to be taken seriously. If you suffer from depression and/or PTSD like I do, then you know that it doesn’t go away based on location. I think that a lot of people, myself included, over-romanticize the idea of getting away to another country and think that we’ll be “healed” when we get here. It is in fact the very opposite of what happens.
Your depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other mental health struggles will be MAGNIFIED in a new location, especially while experiencing culture shock. Situational depression is also very real and can strike during culture shock as well. We highly underestimate the shock factor in “culture shock”; it can be very disorienting and sometimes highly upsetting depending on where you travel to. It can lasts days to weeks, and for those of us who already struggle with mental health, those can be the longest days and weeks of our lives.
I wish I could find statistics to back this up, I’ve been looking all day but no real research has been conducted on it, but when I was in China I was talking to some of the CIEE employees about the hardest part of their jobs. I was shocked to find out when they said “suicides” and “accidental deaths”. A lot of students with chronic or situational depression can be too overwhelmed with everything at once and do not seek help. Being away from home, in a new place, new culture, new language, new classes, new responsibilities, creates a lot of overwhelming stress that will magnify the chronic or situational depression. I wonder how many international students commit suicide every year, but that’s a dark study I’ll maybe conduct when I have my phd or something.
Whatever you are dealing with, or “leaving behind”, will be doubled in your head when you arrive in a new destination, especially somewhere where you do not speak the native language. You have a lot of extra time to think when you can’t speak. For example, after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I had just gotten out of an abusive relationship that I was in for 9 years, immediately jumped into a new relationship with some hot military babe, broke up immediately, and then realized I no longer lived on campus and was “alone” for the first time in years. Post-graduation depression is also a real thing, but we can talk about that later. Anyway! Being “on my own” for the first time was very hard for me to cope with. All the while I am dealing with depression and PTSD from entirely different issues.
Three months after I graduated, I went to India with my mom while she was on a business trip. I have always dreamt of India, it was top of my bucket list. The ancient ruins, the temples, the culture, the food, the music, it was everything I dreamed of. And it all came true, I saw so much beautiful history and culture, and wined and dined myself. It was an amazing trip around Southern India. However, my mental state was not great. The culture shock was a lot to take in, especially when you are surrounded by children begging you for money, and some of them are bleeding and starving, but if you try to help you get mobbed by more people who are in desperate need, and then you realize that you cannot help everyone. Seeing the world in a way I never experienced before, and not being able to talk to the man who would tell me what to do in this situation(even though he’s never left the country), and dealing with dissociating from my PTSD, left me very suicidal. When we landed in Seattle, WA on our way back home, I called the first therapist I could find on google. And then I called a psychiatrist to make sure I was okay. I saw both of them twice a week until I was safe enough to see them farther apart.
It is so important to not forget about your mental health while traveling. If you take medication, make you set alarms to take the pills, because the time change will throw everything off. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with culture shock, take a step back and breathe. It’s okay to spend the day inside while you get mentally settled into your new location. Self-care is always important no matter where you are. However, that is to not be confused with staying in bed all day because of depression and letting it take over. If you’re dealing with suicidal thoughts abroad, take it very seriously. Talk to someone and get help as soon as you can. Just acknowledging what is going on can save your life, even when you are in places where you cannot get professional help.