When you read about interning abroad online, most of the articles are dedicated to the fantastic programs that students can go on. The best places to go for an internship. Why you should choose this particular internship program. The best internships for nurses, STEM majors, environmental majors, etc. You may read about how amazing these internships are. The hard work, what you will learn and all the adventures you will be having. You may have read about how interning abroad will “rock your world.”
And it’s true—these programs can be incredibly powerful learning experiences. And just plain fun. But what happens if you start to feel depression while interning abroad?
You’ve decided to take the plunge and intern abroad. Then you get there, and maybe things aren’t feeling “right.” Maybe you’re suddenly feeling lonely and depressed during your internship. Maybe your experience is not happening like what you read. Maybe you don’t have the energy for all those adventures. You are having a hard time getting out of bed to go to your internship. You are feeling like a failure. You are feeling homesick anxiety. Or hundreds of other negative feelings. You may question: “Why am I the only one feeling like this? Why am I the one struggling?” But trust me, you’re not alone.
This experience is so incredible! Why do I feel this way?
If you struggle with anxiety and/or depression when you are at home, this is also something to keep in mind when you are abroad. Sometimes people see going abroad as a way to escape their struggles at home, but this is usually not the case. Consider well in advance of your travels what you are like when you are struggling anxiety and depression at home, and what you need to cope.
When you go abroad, you’re also surrounded by challenges that you may have never faced before. It can trigger emotions that you may not have experienced before. There are many factors that can go into you struggling when you are abroad. The climate itself can affect you. It can be more rainy then what you are used to. It can be colder. Then you have different factors of the culture or the living situation. If you are living alone or the water is cold or you don’t have access to conveniences that you were use to at home. All these factors can affect you in unexpected ways. You may not expect it. You may have thought that none of these would affect. But sometimes it does and it’s okay. You just have to make steps now to help yourself.
The types of mental stress you might be feeling
When you go abroad, you could be dealing with a lot of new experiences and emotions. What you are feeling can be confusing, though it might be similar to what to what you would feel if you were home. There are just everyday stresses that you can be exposed to, from work stressors to social stressors or something happening back at home. These stressors can be exacerbated when you are abroad due to the loss of your support system; however, there are many ways you can handle these feelings and thrive. The first step is to be able to identify them—below are just a few of the mental stresses that you could be experiencing when you are abroad.
First of all, there’s culture shock. Before you went abroad, you probably heard about culture shock. It’s supposedly very common and normal. Culture shock is seen as a cycle, which usually begins with the honeymoon phase, where a student is excited about the new culture and is feeling very positive about the experience. Soon, the student moves on to a depression and anxiety phase, where a student may become irritable and have behavior changes such as wanting to stay in their room and not explore. Normally students would pass through this phase and go to the acceptance phase and adjust to their lives in the new country.
It is the depression and anxiety phase of culture shock where many interns may not be able to move away from. Culture shock is supposed to pass in a few weeks after you arrive, so if you find yourself still struggling at that point, needing extra help is nothing to be ashamed of. You are also interning there, so you are working in a new business environment there too. There is a lot to adjust to. It can be easy to dismiss what you are feeling as “just” culture shock. If you are struggling, it should be addressed.
Something that is similar to culture shock is homesickness. Homesick anxiety is a very common stress when you are abroad. Maybe you are missing events at home and you see people posting photos about it, or you are missing a specific type of food that your family always made. Or maybe you just REALLY miss your friends, family, and comfy bed back at home. All of this is normal. It’s hard to leave something that you love to a new place and easily adapt, and learning how to deal with being homesick is easier said than done.
Don’t be surprised if feelings of isolation or loneliness creep in—sometimes, even when you’re surrounded for hours by coworkers, bosses, strangers, and even friends, you can feel pretty alone and misunderstood. It is not uncommon to feel far away from the connections and groundedness a known community can bring you.
What are some healthy ways to deal with my depression?
1. Talk to your program or your university.
If you are going through a program, talk with your liaison about what you are going through. Very likely, you are not the first person to be feeling the way you feel, and they can have some useful resources for you. If your work at your internship is struggling, it is important to talk to your program liaison to explain what is happening. They may recommend talking to the place you are interning. They may recommend a therapist. They may connect you with an organization. But letting them know is a good first step.
If you didn’t go through a program, talk with your home university. They may be able to help you as well. Again, you are not the first person who is struggling while interning abroad; they probably have some helpful tools for you to try as well.
Reaching out can be difficult, especially when struggling with depression. Your program provider and your university at there for you. They want you to succeed. They want to help you. So don’t be afraid to ask for help. That is what they are there for.
2. Become part of the community.
When you are living abroad and start feeling lonely and depressed during your internship, it can become easy to feel a bit lost. It can be easy to feel homesick. It can be easy to feel lonely. It can be easy to feel disconnected. You can feel as if you are facing everything alone and you are lost in this new world. Start by trying to connect to the community where you are living. This could be getting involved in a local sports club, volunteering, trying to connect with your co-workers more, or going to local events. Depression can have you feeling as if you are alone, that you are battling on your own, but it doesn’t have to be this way. By connecting with your local community, it is not only a reason to leave where you are living, but it gives you a connection. It makes this community feel more like your home.
Getting out while struggling with depression or homesickness is not easy. It can be a hard battle. Find a person who you are with abroad to help you or set goals for yourself. For example, it can be attending two local activities a week to start. Even if you think you are going to have a miserable time, still go. It’s not easy, but it is worth it.
3. Remember what you did to feel mentally well at home.
You may or may not think about your mental wellness when you are at home. You may actively do things that you know help you feel mentally well, or you do things just because it makes you happy. Think about what you do at home that you love doing and usually makes you feel better. It could be cooking, religion, running, puzzles, meditation, or anything else. Write it down. See if you can adapt any of these to where you are living now. Bring them with you. If you run a lot at home, but you haven’t since you went abroad, try going for a run. Bring your wellness tools to where you are. Do what you love.
4. Talk about it with someone close to you.
So, you may have mentioned that you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or homesickness to someone at your program or school, but it’s just not quite the same as talking with someone close to you about it. Reach out to a good friend or family member at home. Talk to someone who knows you and cares about you. Stay connected. Use your support system, even if they are far. Maybe you became close to someone at your internship, talk with them. Don’t be scared to speak about what you are experiencing. It will help.
5. Use phone apps designed to help you cope.
When you are abroad, it can be hard to find a therapist where you are living or talk to your therapist at home. Phone apps are a way to combat this. If you can use them, try it. There are apps for therapy, meditation, keeping track of how you are feeling, anxiety, OCD, and many others. Here is a link to a few ideas from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. See if you can use these abroad, and then use them if you can. It can be a great resource for you and another tool you can use.
6. Start a good memory or gratitude jar.
Depression likes you to focus on the negative in your life. By writing down a good memory or something you are grateful for every day—it can force you to see some good in your life. Maybe for the first couple times doing this, you may feel like you don’t have much to see. Sometimes it can just be “Today, I got out of bed by 10 am” or “Today, I went to work all day”—but soon you can start writing more. You met a new friend. You did something fun. You had a good day at work. You talked to a friend at home. Try to think of something every day and write it down. It will grow.
7. Create a basic self-care activities list. Then do the activities!!
Depression can have you forget to take care of yourself. Write down a list of basic things you need to do every day to take care of yourself. It can be something as simple as brushing your hair or get out of bed. Just write it down and keep it close. It’s a good reminder of doing the simple things. When you do some of these things, it can help you feel accomplished, and it can keep you motivated to keep moving.
8. Re-evaluate your goals and expectations.
We can often go into these experiences with high expectations. You may have had ideas of what you wanted to accomplish when you were abroad, but your internship may be different than expected or your overall experience isn’t as smooth as you hoped. Being open to adapting your goals and your expectations can help change your outlook on your experience.
Just because it is not what you expected, doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Maybe you thought that you were going to be able to make friends at your internship, but you haven’t been able to so you became isolated. Instead of accepting that, you can volunteer somewhere locally or join a local organization to meet other people. You may have thought you would be doing a different type of work at your internship, but it turned out to be something different. Try to set new goals of what you can learn.
Things usually don’t go as we thought they would. But evolving our goals or experiences to the way our internship abroad actually is can help.
9. Practice patience with yourself—and forgiveness.
Struggling when you are abroad can be difficult. You feel like you should be having an incredible experience, but you just aren’t. You may feel like a failure. Like you are doing something wrong. But please take it easy on yourself. Forgive yourself for having a difficult time. People struggle. It’s okay. Just take care of yourself, and remind yourself that your willingness to come on this great adventure is enough. You’re already killing it!
When should you prioritize your health?
If you find yourself still struggling after a few weeks, it can be something more than your typical stresses, homesickness, and culture shock. When you go abroad, you are often immersed in a new culture with new challenges and lacking your usual support system. All of these stressors that can happen, can exacerbate to depression or anxiety. Everyone is different. It won’t look or be the same in each person. If you are suffering for a while, try new coping mechanisms and/or seek help.
Remember that none of the above recommendations will be a cure-all. Going on to an activity one time will not “cure” your depression, anxiety, or homesickness. It’s a process. It’s a combination of many mechanisms that will make you successful interning abroad. But if these don’t work—or anything else doesn’t seem to work (and you are only getting worse)—it is okay to go home. You should be making your health a priority.
When you start to realize you are not feeling mentally well while you are interning abroad, it is essential to take note of what is happening with you. First of all, it is important to recognize what you are feeling. How long have you been feeling this way? Have you been feeling this way the entire time? What has changed about your personality? Self-diagnosing can be dangerous, but it can also be important to become self-aware. You know yourself better than anyone else. You know your normal. Maybe you have been abroad before and struggled with something similar. By becoming aware you can better understand that what you are feeling isn’t healthy.
It’s okay to know that this isn’t the right time for you to intern abroad. It’s not failing. It’s putting yourself first, and that’s the smart move if you’re feeling depression while interning abroad.
Additional resources for mental health and interning abroad
Technology has become wonderful in helping us cope with depression while interning abroad or feelings of homesick/anxiety. I mentioned above in the tips some apps you can use to help you. But there are many more resources for you online. Here are a few additional resources for you:
- Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Mental Health & Self-Care
- Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance
- National Alliance for Mental Illness
- Mental Health Wellness Abroad
- Wired for Happy
- Jed Foundation
- 14 Mental Health Apps People Living With Mental Illnesses Recommend
It is never easy to struggle with depression alone, and these resources can give you a sense of community and guidance that can be helpful.
It’s okay to be depressed while interning abroad
This article just lists a few ways to cope and some of the online resources available for you. Interning abroad can be difficult, but it can also be worth it. Your mental health should be taken seriously when you are abroad. Find what works for you. Travel intentionally. Be aware of your mental health. Do your best. And always, always, ALWAYS take care of yourself when you are abroad. Stay strong! 💪