What I Learned While Managing My Mental Health Abroad

By Jennifer ForbesJuly 11, 2018

So many of us have dreams to travel and see the world. Picture it: Spending a semester meeting new people and taking in all of the best sites. Or perhaps taking an entry-level job that’s far away from the chaos we’ve come to know.

“Life is short, see the world while you can!” It was a thought I couldn’t push out of my head. So, I left my corporate job and traveled halfway across the world to China. Sadly, my depression and GAD hopped on the plane with me.

Such is life.

I knew it would be a challenge managing my health abroad. However, I didn’t understand just how much the country I was moving to stigmatized mental health—even more than my home country. I wasn’t prepared for conversations where my diagnosis would be put into question, but they happened nevertheless.

“I have depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”

“No you don’t, foreigners are just overly sensitive.”

This was just one of the many comments I received when discussing my mental illnesses. And while, yes, the topic of mental health is slowly becoming less taboo in many parts of the world, I found that not believing in the existence of mental illness was rather common in my new foreign home.

No matter how often I talked about mental health and the stigma that’s attached, people would simply brush me off and tell me to “stop being so dramatic.” While these remarks hurt, I was able to ignore the sting and refer back to my solid support system back in the states. It wasn’t my job to educate the locals about mental health or de-stigmatize an entire country. And if it ever got to be too much, I could always go home. Simple enough. Easy.

But then a Chinese coworker brought it up during a meeting. Face full of fear, she told the entire staff that she was struggling with depression. I could tell she was worried, wondering, “What will they think of me?”

My Chinese boss commented, “You’re not depressed. Everyone gets sad.” She continued to tell her that it would help if she stayed focused on her work. She would “get over it eventually.” My American boss agreed.

Later that night, my coworker and I had a long conversation about mental health. She confessed that she wasn’t just struggling with depression. She talked about how difficult it was to receive the proper help she needed. She even mentioned that she felt she could never tell her parents—they wouldn’t believe her. But none of that really mattered to her. She was determined to get better.  “Could you send me western articles, maybe more advice?” she asked.

It was during this conversation that I finally began to understand something I didn’t want to admit: My voice matters. My personal fight against depression and GAD shouldn’t be something I shy away from sharing because there are people out there who don’t have what we have here. People need us to recognize our privilege and speak up so that they can do the same.

While it can be and usually is difficult to find proper mental health resources abroad, it’s possible. Even in a country where it’s highly stigmatized, western doctors and native doctors who are trained according to western standards can be found, and online therapy, ranging from Skype sessions to email and text, is available with a solid internet connection. And medicine? Well, it’s imported seemingly as frequent a cheese.

No matter where we are in the world, mental illness is real. And the state and ongoing care of our mental health matters. We are here to enjoy the world, but we need to take care of ourselves in order to do that. We are soldiers, we are superheroes, we are wanderers, and we are pathfinders. Never let your mental health stop you from discovering the world. Never let stigma keep you from speaking up and seeking the help you need.

We deserve to be heard. We deserve to be seen. Don’t settle for less.

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Comments (1)

  1. Janet Lynn Rubbo

    WOW, I am sooo proud of your courage!!! And in the end, you were able to “Pay It Forward”, all of your own mental health growth, to someone who felt helpless & hopeless!!! You are a ROCK STAR… and the BONUS for you was that you finally found a kindred spirit to share your issues with in return… I am so happy for you‼️?

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