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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

May 20, 2018   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsStudy Abroad Columns

Exploring the Emerald Isle: Adjusting to a new culture

When I chose to study abroad, I did so knowing the drastic changes and challenges it would present would be good for me. I was not afraid of the intimidating cultural adjustment graph shown at information sessions. The steep slope from the “honeymoon phase” I would allegedly experience down to the pit of “culture shock” made me roll my eyes. I was ready.

The truth is, not everyone experiences that menacing bell-curve outlined at every study abroad meeting. For me, the adjustment was subtle. I experienced placid contentment instead of intense euphoria, and I would have slight spells of frustration or loneliness in place of the “crisis” I was guaranteed to endure. But my time here has not been perfect.

I was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder during my sophomore year of college and attended therapy and took medication to help regulate it. When I initially sought help, I felt like a shell of myself. But thanks to the resources and support available to me, I learned to better manage my mind, and what was once a solid few months of constant sadness and worry now comes in occasional waves.

Though infrequent, these episodes can be intense, and one of them occurred while I was here. Before I went to Ireland, I decided to wean myself off of my medication so that I was not bothered with filling my prescription abroad. However, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist on campus just in case.

The excitement of living in a new country had made me believe that perhaps I had left my anxiety and depression at home.

However, it was not that simple. I found myself struggling again, but this time, feared reaching out. I did not want to worry my loved ones at home or impose on my new friends here. I was nervous because I did not know how people here viewed mental health or if therapy and psychiatry would be different. I tried to convince myself that ignoring the problem would make it go away, which of course, only made it worse. I began reaching out to some family and friends from home, but still felt isolated.

After a particularly rough night, I finally decided to go to my university’s counseling center. Part of me felt discouraged that I needed to, but when I met with the therapist, she made me feel proud for having the courage to reach out — something I had not previously applauded myself for. The next day, I was able to see a psychiatrist and decided to go back on my medication. Instead of letting me feel like I had failed, he commended me for attempting to go off my meds and recognizing when it did not work. Though minute, focusing on these little victories helped me feel stronger and more accomplished when I otherwise struggled to be productive.

I did not need to be ashamed of experiencing mental illness. The Independent states 7.7 percent of the Irish population suffers from depression, comparable to the 6.7 percent the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports for the U.S. adult population. However, misunderstanding mental illness is a worldwide problem that is even more dire in less-privileged countries. As a privileged person studying in a privileged country, I am lucky. Mental healthcare advocate Vikram Patel noted in a TED Talk in 2012 that approximately 50 percent of people in developed countries do not receive appropriate care, but in developing nations, the statistic rises to 90 percent.

Ireland has made moves to change attitudes about mental health through educational movements like the Green Ribbon Campaign, spearheaded by an organization called SeeChange that works to eliminate mental health stigma. The more people learn how to prioritize their minds the same as their bodies, the healthier the world will be.

Moving to a new place did not mean my brain would magically change its chemical composition, and feeling anxiety and depression here does not define my otherwise amazing abroad experience. Isolation is never the answer, and even 3,000 miles away from home, there are people there to help.