Op-ed: Weighing the mental perils of studying abroad

During my first semester, nothing thrilled me more than receiving an email inviting me to apply to study at Kasteel Well. Emerson offered me the chance to study in the Netherlands for three months, travel around Europe, experience new cultures, and broaden my global perspective—how could I possibly turn that down?

When the program accepted me I felt so overjoyed I didn’t even consider leaving my family, my friends, and my familiar way of life behind. But most importantly, I overlooked how studying abroad could impact my mental health.  

I became extremely sick with a sore throat and fever after our first group excursion in Amsterdam. I pushed through it and insisted I felt fine, and the next weekend I took an overnight bus to Paris. Unsurprisingly I pushed myself too hard and experienced a breakdown two weeks into my study abroad experience. I didn’t want to stay behind the first travel weekend even though the staff encouraged us to take an occasional weekend off.

Research shows studying abroad can exacerbate students’ existing mental health problems. I didn’t take into consideration my mental health before deciding to travel every weekend, and I felt the effects of that decision very quickly. Traveling every weekend meant I would learn about various new cultures and encounter parts of the world I never thought I’d explore, but that came in conjunction with a semester of intense academic study and stress.  

A semester at Kasteel Well lasts only 90 days. However, professors still need to fit a semester’s worth of material into that period. This means papers due every week, reading multiple books for different classes, and additional readings and short assignments on top of exams.

Students typically spend weekends traveling and exploring. They leave late Thursday night and sometimes don’t return until Monday morning. The travel packs all of your academic stress into a four-day school week, and it can quickly become overwhelming. The stress took a few weeks to catch up to me, but when it did my mental health took a serious hit. I cried in my room because I felt I couldn’t keep up with everyone else instead of looking forward to my weekends in Spain and Switzerland.   

College students in America suffer from mental illnesses at an extremely high rate. Multiple studies over the past decade show a large percentage of college students report feeling depressed. Some studies say as many as half or more of all students experience depression. I am no exception to this statistic, and I wish I took an extra semester to settle at college and stabilize my own mental health.

Everyone should think about studying abroad in their lifetime, but you should never blindly go abroad at the expense of your mental health. My study abroad experience has been incredible, and I know I would recommend it to other students—but having experienced the stress and the toll it takes on a person, I would caution my peers to make sure they wait until they feel truly ready. The first opportunity to go abroad may not come at the right time, and there’s no shame in waiting to travel to make it the best possible experience for you.

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