My friend is struggling with a mental illness while traveling. How do I help?

by Published

This article was originally published in our free downloadable eBook, “Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Mental Health and Self-Care

So, your friend has a mental illness.* They’re also traveling abroad. You don’t have to be studying counseling abroad to help them. As part of their mental health support system, you may be wondering how their experience may be affecting them, but you also know that they are not their mental health problems. They are not their depression, their bipolar disorder, or their anxiety. While approximately one in four people experience mental illness each year, most people are able to manage their mental illness and go about their daily lives in ways that work for them.

close up of two friends holding hands, one with a camera in hand.
Whether you’re wondering how to be the best travel partner, or figuring out how to support from across the sea, here are some tips to be there for your buddy. 

Dealing with travel related issues, like culture shock, can be stressful for anyone, no matter if they have a mental illness or not. On top of that, traveling with a condition like schizophrenia or manic episodes means having to make sure your medication doesn’t get lost and that it is legal and accessible abroad. Whether you’re wondering how to be the best travel partner for them or you’re wondering how to cheer for them on the sidelines, here are some tips to be there for your buddy who is traveling abroad with a mental illness.

No Matter the Distance: Advice to Give Mental Health Support

It may seem overwhelming to support a friend with a mental illness, or it may seem like a piece of cake to you after you two have established what works. Here’s how to help someone with mental illness, no matter if you’re volunteering in India and they’re interning in South Africa.

two friends smiling and laughing in the sun
Even from a distance, being empathetic and supporting your friend is important as they go on their adventures.

Be empathetic.

It’s easy to mistake empathy with sympathy. You might have an LGBT friend with mental health problems who, on top of worrying about adjusting to a new culture, is worried about their safety if they come out to their host family. Or, they could be a person of color who deals with cultural, religious, linguistic barriers, and negative stereotypes, depending on where they’re from or where they’re going. These combined factors can be weakening. You can’t solve racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia. But, what you can do is listen. Being an active listener and being okay with not being able to solve these problems is the key to empathy.

CHECK OUT Brené Brown’s animated talk: Empathy vs. Sympathy

In Brené Brown’s video, she explains that it’s okay not to have all the answers. It’s okay to say “I don’t know what that’s like, but I’m here if you need me.” Check out the video and it will probably be one of your favorite animal-in-a-cave videos. Whatever you do, don’t be the person who just offers a sandwich. You’ll also think twice about starting off a sentence with “At least” when offering mental health support. 

two friends chatting in a pub/restaurant in the UK
Have an open conversation about how they’re doing and what they’re feeling.

Check in.

Few things are as comforting as having friends reach out for the sake of reaching out. After my assaults and after the Orlando shooting in June, I was very public on Facebook and on my blog about how these events affected me. Not once was I angry that someone reached out to me. I felt more saddened that people felt as if they couldn’t or shouldn’t reach out to me because they wouldn’t know what to say. 

After the Orlando shooting, I was in shock. As a queer woman of color, I felt as if I could have been targeted myself. I never would have thought that a horrific mass shooting could happen in a “safe” space for queer people. I took two mental health days to see a therapist and to be around friends I cared about, and once I returned to social media and opened my inbox, one of my friends told me:

I stand with you. I’m proud of you. You are brave. You are loved.” 

I had one coworker text me out of the blue and tell me that she didn’t have anything particular to say, but she wanted me to know that she was there for me in case I needed someone to listen. It made me feel loved. I thanked her for reaching out, even though we didn’t end up talking. Sometimes, it’s nice to just check in without either party feeling pressured to follow through. 

My friend is struggling with a mental illness while traveling. How do I help?

Use “I” statements.

Using I statements instead of accusatory statements can make a world of a difference when you’re addressing issues or asking something of someone, especially if they have a mental illness. Read this statement: “You always take forever to get online to Skype.”

What’s wrong with this? First, when using words like “always” or “never,” you’re making a sweeping generalization. Maybe your friend just has incredibly slow internet. Maybe they feel like they have to be emotionally grounded before talking to you first so that you don’t worry about them. 

Instead, say things like “I will wait for you to come home so that we can chat,” or “I feel ignored when you take longer than planned to get online. I’d like to know what we can do about it.” This takes more of the pressure off of your friend and sounds so much more constructive. 

Have an open, conversation about what they’re going through.

Anyone with a mental illness is mostly aware of their limits, and travel can push those limits further. Therefore, even if you have already talked with your friend about how you can support them, initiating this conversation again with regard to travel can provide them an extreme amount of relief. If it’s difficult for you to initiate conversations, just think of how hard it might be for someone with anxiety to do so.

two young men sitting on a rock by the ocean
Communication, communication, communication. Make sure you’re both communicating your needs— especially if you’re traveling with your friend.

Traveling Support Tips

Are you in the same country as your friend? You may not be in the same building or city as they are, but it’s comforting for them to know you understand how life in this country is different. Follow this advice.

Communicate your needs.

Good communication is the basis of any relationship, but being in a foreign place brings extra challenges and stresses, from extreme humidity and heat to dealing with a foreign language. Being a good travel partner means doing your fair share. Do you need to be alone? Do you need to take a break from sightseeing? If you want to stop and grab a bite to eat, say so. If they’re doing all of the trip planning, suggest an activity and offer to plan it. This will keep you both happier.

If you’re concerned that your buddy seems a bit out of it, remember to use “I” statements. Traveling can wear down on anyone regardless of whether or not they have a mental illness, so say something like “I’m happy we could spend time together. I notice you seem a bit tired right now. I’d like to know if you need a break. I don’t need you to explain anything if you don’t want to, though.” Some people need to set more limits than others. As an introvert who feels anxious if I’m around people for too long, I’m open with my friends about needing alone time, and they respect my needs.

Offer to seek help or do research on your friend's behalf

You might have a better internet connection than they do to look up where to find a medicine; they might not be as tech-savvy as you are to find some answers and mental health support services. Maybe you know someone who can better support your friend than you’re able to with immediate resources. Be up front about the availability of your resources and your willingness to do research. If your friend isn’t able to Google something or get advice, you’ll help them in a jiffy. 

young man chatting on the phone
Check in with your friend – whether you’re traveling with them, or you’re holding down the fort back home.

Long Distance Support Tips

Are you at home while they’re abroad? You can still be an incredible source of love and support for your friend. Follow this advice.

Be flexible.

Even if you’re physically separated, you can be their mental health support system. Find other things to do “with” them that bring them comfort and that remind them of your relationship. If you used to spend every Saturday grabbing coffee together, have a Skype date while drinking coffee and catching up. It may sound silly and it won’t be the same, but the sense of familiarity with a shared activity, although altered, can bring you both joy. Watch silly Youtube videos at the same time.

Do your research.

There’s so many resources about mental illness that can help you better understand mental illnesses ranging from eating disorders to antisocial personality disorder. Check out a variety of online resources that can help you better empathize with your buddy and understand what they’re going through. After reading articles about mental illness, you’ll be better able to understand how seemingly simple tasks like finding a culturally competent therapist can be easier said than done. 

You want the best for your friend, and you’re doing your part by finding out how you can support them. While you care for your friend, don't feel bad if you feel a little helpless in the entire process – the point is to be there for them if they need you, but don’t take it personally if they don’t. Traveling with a mental illness comes with its own set of challenges, but now that you’re better informed about how you can support your buddy, you both can have an ultimately rewarding travel experience. 

Download our Meaningful Travel Tips & Tales: Mental Health eBook to learn more!

*Note: This article refers to the Westernized notion of mental illness.