11 Tips to Handle Depression While Volunteering Abroad

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Feeling like a shadow of your best self? Depression can be ruthless, slurping away your energy, motivation, and any trace of hope without warning or cause. Perhaps you’ve dealt with depression at home, and the feelings are a known enemy now on foreign soil. In other cases, it sneaks up unannounced, and you’re struggling through the clouds of depression for the first time abroad. 

journal and coffee

If you’re feeling lonely abroad, it will help to write about it.

If you’re feeling depressed while volunteering abroad, know that YOU. ARE. NOT. ALONE. It can feel like depression is a hole that you cannot crawl out of, and sometimes the traps of our minds are stronger than our powers to overcome them. If you are in this position, reach out to your program provider or a local contact about mental health support immediately. 

Why you might be feeling depressed while volunteering abroad

More than a quarter of people report suffering from mental illness at some point in their lives, and all deal with less severe (but nonetheless difficult) emotional hurdles. Being far from home can be challenging, especially during remote volunteer placements abroad. You’re far from your usual creature comforts in an unfamiliar landscape surrounded by people you haven’t known all that long. 

On top of that, you may be working with a systematically oppressed or marginalized community on an emotionally difficult project. Outside support for these groups is critical, but such remote volunteer placements abroad take an emotional toll. You may feel hopeless about the prospects of the project you’re working on, or simply overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done. These feelings are natural when confronted with difficult remote volunteer placements abroad.

Volunteering abroad can be wonderful and transformative, but it’s not all magic hour sunrise shoots over the ocean. Particularly with remote volunteer placements abroad, volunteers may struggle with hefty workloads, basic provisions, and language barriers. Social media sets unrealistic expectations that rarely show the less photogenic moments of volunteering like bad hair days, food poisoning, and feeling lonely abroad. Ups and downs are a given on any trip, so try not to take the low points personally.

backpacking in the wilderness

Take advantage of the fresh air whenever you can.

We’ve collected these practical strategies for dealing with depression while volunteering abroad to help those who are feeling lonely abroad or struggling with other mental health challenges to care for themselves. These suggestions give you some tools to try to pull yourself back up with small methodical steps. Not all will work for everyone, so take what’s useful to you and save the rest for a friend in need.

Know what types of feelings you might have

Volunteering abroad is filled with new experiences and a rollercoaster of new emotions. A few of the most common feelings volunteers struggle with are:

  • Culture shock—New cultures can be confronting, pushing volunteers out of their comfort zones with strange foods, customs, and systems. Culture shock tends to come in waves alternating between “WOW! Everything is beautiful and different and magical!” and “UGH. Why do they do things this way when it’s SO CLEARLY ineffective?? This place is weird, and I don’t like it.”
  • Frustration—A close compatriot to culture shock, frustration is bound to bubble up when things don’t make sense.
  • Loneliness—Especially if you’re in a remote volunteer placement abroad, but even if you’re not, being oceans away from family and friends is hard. You’ll no doubt make friends in your volunteer site, but these connections often lack the comfortable familiarity of a mom or BFF.
  • Anxiety—Volunteers are sometimes asked to accomplish ambitious goals with limited resources. It may be your first time working with animals or perhaps your Spanish skills are a bit rusty. Small things can pile up into a lot of stress and pressure, especially if you don’t have a good outlet to get things off your chest.
  • Isolation—While you’re away, life back home keeps chugging along: friends are getting married or your baby cousin took his first steps, and you have a major case of FOMO that makes it feel like you’re on another planet (rather than a plane flight away).
  • Homesickness—Less of a sickness per se, and more of a sharp longing, it’s undeniably difficult not to be able to share what you’re experiencing with the people you know and love most back home.
  • Sadness—Maybe there’s just a general sadness hanging in your heart for all of the causes around the world that don’t get the attention they deserve. Maybe something that happened while volunteering brought up an old pain of your own.
  • Exhaustion—Volunteering abroad can be really tiring, especially as you’re adapting to a new environment. You are sleeping in a different bed, dealing with jetlag, and diving into your volunteer experience. This is the kind of tired that even coffee can’t fix.

Why the laundry list of tough feelings? Because sometimes putting a name on it is the first step toward giving yourself what you need. If you’re exhausted, you probably need a nap a lot more than you need a trip to the gym. 

On the bright side, you usually don’t have to deal with more than a few of these at once (thank goodness!). Volunteering abroad brings up plenty of joyful, nourishing feelings too!

11 tips for when you can’t shake those blues

1. Quick check: How long has it been since you slept? When was the last time you drank water?

When you’re volunteering abroad, it’s easy to dedicate yourself so fully to the service of others that you forget about your own health and well-being. Being abroad disrupts our usual daily patterns, and fills the day with new and exciting things. It’s no wonder then that volunteers often forget to take breaks, hydrate, and give their bodies the nourishment they would back home. With the strain of travel (carrying 23 kilos on your back while navigating a foreign transport system is no easy task!), self care check-ins are more important than ever. If depression, exhaustion, or any of the other feelings described above start to creep up, this should be your go-to internal inquisition.

sleeping seal, galapagos

Take a page out of your conservation buddy’s book—make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

2. Give yourself a break.

Easier said than done, I know. But sometimes dark feelings are your body’s way of screaming for a moment of rest. When in a remote volunteer placement abroad, the worthy causes are endless, and volunteers often put pressure on themselves to be everywhere and do everything.

If this sounds like you, raise your hands in a metaphorical ‘T’ and call for a literal timeout. Yes, that’s a thing. Give yourself permission to rest and recharge.

3. Feeling extra lonely abroad? Reach out to a fellow volunteer.

This may sound obvious, but it isn’t always so black and white. Loneliness can rear its head in different forms (anger, sadness, depression, overcompensation), so the trick is to identify the source of these other emotional expressions. After a good heart-to-heart with yourself, try reaching out to local contacts to set up a hang out. A little social contact can do a lot of good by offering a fresh perspective and energy lift.

4. Remote volunteer placements abroad are tough. Connect with friends and family back home.

It’s the 21st century, so feeling lonely abroad has a presto recipe: E.T. phone home. Write a long email telling your dad about your trip so far. Snapchat a silly photo to your friends. Respond to that message from your auntie. Call your sister (totally free on apps like Viber and Whatsapp) for a spirited debate. Whatever your communication medium of choice, find a way to share your feelings and experiences with the people you love, and listen to what’s happening in their lives. It may not be quite the same as snuggling on your parents’ coach for a family discussion, but even digital connections can be nourishing. 

5. Get your heart rate up with physical exertion. 

I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out: exercise releases endorphins, which are your body’s natural happy pills. Whether it’s a tennis match, a long run in the countryside, or yoga on your bedroom floor, you may not be able to sweat out depression, but fitness is proven to uplift internal energy. Wherever you are in the world, your body is your home - take care of it, and it will take care of you. 

volunteers working on wall garden

Sometimes the best you can do is a good job at your volunteer placement.

6. Listen to guilty pleasure music or TV from home.

Yes, really, your guiltiest pleasures—even Toddlers & Tiaras reruns are not off the table. Dealing with depression while volunteering abroad is overwhelming. Give yourself a double dose of comfort, guilt-free. 

7. Find a puppy. ASAP.

Or a cat. Or a guinea pig. Or a sloth. Research shows that spending time with animals can help when dealing with depression. Not that research was really needed—most humans who have owned a pet intuitively know this to be true. Furry friends dole out physical affection and boundless adoration without asking questions. They don’t need you to explain what’s going on, so long as you keep throwing the ball and scratching that spot behind the ears. Canines are recommended, because felines have their own agenda—but if you’re more of a cat person, you do you.

And, no, googling ‘cute puppy photos’ doesn’t count. The idea is to give yourself a hearty dose of mammal-to-mammal snuggle time.

8. How ‘bout a snack?

It can be tempting when you’re feeling low to go straight for guilty treats like chocolate, ice cream, and pizza delivery. But often it’s exactly the opposite of what your body needs. Eating tasty, nutritious food can be a huge pick-me-up for your insides, which will show through on your outsides too. If you’re missing home, opt for something nostalgic that you loved as a kid. If you’re feeling lonely abroad, invite a friend (or a friendly acquaintance) to join you for a treat. 

If time and space allow, prepare a nice meal for yourself. The simple tasks of cooking get you out to the grocery store and moving around the house. Exhausted? Go easy on yourself, and stick to the basics. If you’re in a homestay or other situation where you don’t have control over what you eat, take yourself out somewhere casual and cozy to give your mind new flavors to chew over.

9. Seek out the sunlight. 

It’s (almost) impossible to be unhappy frolicking outside on a sunny day. If you don’t have any natural sunlight on hand, get yourself a sun lamp. There’s a reason sun lamps are a household staple in many parts of the world with limited sunlight: bodies rely on sunshine for vitamin D. The goLITE BLU is compact and powered by rechargeable batteries, which makes it handy for travel (and eliminates the need for plug converters).

woman in shadow looking out window

Never hesitate to reach out to program coordinators and professionals when you’re feeling depressed while volunteering abroad.

10. Put pen to paper, and let it all out.

If it feels daunting to write about your feelings, try just letting the pen flow in free form about whatever comes to mind. Processing feelings is hard. Processing feelings inside your head in a remote volunteer placement abroad is harder. Writing can help you pinpoint what you’re struggling with and what you’re craving.

11. Talk it out with a professional.

Depression is not a cooperative beast, and you should not have to fight it alone. Though society has stigmatized seeking professional help for mental health challenges, there is no shame is doing everything you can to find health and happiness. When dealing with depression while volunteering abroad, if your best efforts to pull yourself out of it don’t pick you up, reach out to a pro to chat.

Additional resources to support your mental health while volunteering abroad

These 11 tips just scratch the surface all of the advice out there about managing stress, depression, and feeling lonely abroad. Everybody is different and craves a little something different when it’s low. Pick through the additional resources below for more ideas and anecdotes about dealing with depression while volunteering abroad.

On GoAbroad:

Elsewhere on the web:

Not everything above is going to work for you, and that’s A-okay. Don’t be afraid to try various things and scrap what’s not your style.

Take care of yourself to take care of the world

woman smiling
Just because you struggle with mental health issues doesn't mean you can't have a positive experience abroad!

You can’t help others unless your help yourself first. Not feeling your best? Keep these self care strategies up your sleeve to make the most of your time volunteering abroad! Most importantly, know that there is nothing wrong with not feeling like sunshine and roses all the time. Sometimes, being lonely abroad or dealing with depression while volunteering abroad are part of the process of growing and learning how to care for your body. 

If the deepression sinks deeper than you can hold by yourself, know that there are others out there who want to help. Keep fighting the good fight; you are stronger than you know.

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Topic:  While Abroad