The Biggest Piece of Baggage: Travelling with Mental Health Issues

The 10th of October was World Mental Health Day, an occasion for the global community to come together to raise awareness and mobilize support efforts in every corner of the world. This time of year offers a good opportunity to talk about an issue that, much like most aspects of mental health, is rarely brought up – how to travel with an uncooperative brain in your luggage.

 According to an NUS study, one in five students experience mental health issues while at university. We are far from a negligible proportion of the student body. At university, we are also often bombarded with opportunities to go abroad in one capacity or another: STA travel deals, international volunteering, not to mention exchange years – for some, travel is a part of the university experience. For others, there are numerous hurdles along the way to the airport. Mental illness can certainly be a big one.

Aside from the lack of means that often correlates with mental illness, there is a simple reason behind this: travelling is stressful and destabilizing.  Making it to the right place at the right time with the right documents in hand is bad enough on its own. Add the hassle of delayed flights, lost suitcases, lack of sleep, and culture shock, and we have a wide assortment of stressors and triggers that affect us all in uniquely nefarious ways.

Accessing the help you need can be difficult. You’re removed from your own support system, including your therapist or your GP. You will be hard-pressed to find any country where their mental health care system gives no cause for complaints.  In many places, there is very limited training in mental health for medical staff, no psychiatric hospitals, and no guarantees of basic human rights in mental health treatment. Additionally, if you’re going abroad for something like an exchange year, support from your home university often leaves a lot of be desired.

It can be hard to anticipate how travelling will affect you. Your usual coping methods may no longer be applicable in a new environment. That’s not to say that some preparation ahead of time can’t go a long way for reducing anxiety. Packing lists and itineraries can be helpful. Getting enough sleep is what I’ve found makes the biggest difference. Travel sometimes forces us to navigate airports at horrible o’clock, but even 4-hours-of-sleep-me is way better at coping with looming anxiety issues than 1-hour-of-sleep-me. Jet lag can do mean things to an already unamiable brain.

Also, bringing a trusted member of Team You who understands your issues and whose company makes you feel better is often a literal lifesaver. Having someone at home that you can easily contact is also a good idea.

Then there’s the matter of meds. Your prescriptions may not be legal or available in the country you’re visiting. A good rule of thumb is to bring twice as many meds as you need, just in case you lose some, and to bring at least one batch in your hand luggage. It’s also good to bring your meds in their original containers and some kind of documents from your doctor to prove that they are prescribed to you. Some airlines can be a bit particular about this. Moving doses around due to time zone differences can be an issue, so consult with your doctor well in advance.

Definitely make sure to get travel insurance that includes cover for mental health conditions (this is not always easy to find, but does exist, so check the small print). This not only gives you more peace of mind, but is absolutely vital should you need health care of any kind.

So what happens if things end up deteriorating during your trip and you need help? One of your first stops should be an embassy. The Foreign and Commonwealth’s consular services can help you contact family, friends or carers, give you information about the local availability of medication, liaise with your travel insurance company and offer information about returning home if you need to, amongst other things.  If you need to be hospitalised abroad, they can help overseas and UK medical staff to communicate. They cannot, however, give direct medical advice or pay for your transport or medical bills.

 Some good resources include the FCO’s webpages and leaflets about travelling with mental health needs, as well as the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers’ eLibrary, which contains specialized advice for a wide range of mental health conditions.

Mental illness is an extra piece of luggage to carry around when travelling, but it need not be one that ties you down. Know your limits and your triggers, practice lots of self-care, prepare for the worst as well as the best case scenarios, and you’re pretty well-equipped. Take care, wherever life takes you.

[Annina Claesson]

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