Mind How You Go: A How-To Guide For Travelling and Mental Health
Nerves and anxiety are a natural part of travelling – you are stepping into the unknown and our fight or flight instincts kick in. With so many societies offering trips abroad over the Christmas break and even more students going away with friends or family, The Gryphon explores what it means to travel with a mental health condition.
Fear is an attempt to keep us safe, and really when you think about it: flying through the air in a 450 ton metal tube is a scary thought, even when you know that you chances of crashing stand at about 1 in 5.4 million, according to The Economist. These feelings of fear or nerves characterise most people’s experiences of travel – but what happens when that fear takes over? When it worms itself into every aspect of your life, every thought is followed by a ‘what if…’ and your everyday state can be one of panic. If this is your normal – travelling becomes that much more difficult.
You will, without a doubt, know someone with a mental health condition. According to mental health charity, Mind, 1 in 4 people will be affected by mental health problems each year: 2.6 percent will struggle with depression, 4.7 percent will experience anxiety, 9.7 percent will have a mix of the two. Clearly, these conditions are not uncommon and it is time that the effect they have on people’s lives is recognised. Holidays and travelling are meant to be a time to get-away from it all and relax but, for people with mental health conditions, holidays can actually be so much harder than day-to-day life.
University is a time filled with so many opportunities, especially for travel. What better way to see the world than climbing Everest with RAG, going to Amsterdam with your department, skiing in the Alps with Snowriders, going on tour with your sports team, or even spending a year studying abroad. These opportunities have the potential to help make university the best years of your life, but having a brain that sometimes just does not want to co-operate can mean that you miss out. From 2009/2010 to 2014/2015, the number of British nationals seeking help from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) regarding mental health rose by nearly fifty percent. This is not to say that those with mental health conditions should not travel, it just means that you may need a bit more preparation.
Getting insurance when travelling is one of the most important things you can do. Sadly having a mental health problem can create challenges when getting insurance cover: it may be that you are seen as a ‘high risk’ customer and they can charge a higher premium or refuse to cover you. That being said, if you do not declare any mental health problems, any claims you do make that could be related to it, may be void. It is worth shopping around and looking at companies that specifically cover chronic health problems.
The Gryphon spoke to Kate about her difficulties getting insurance for her daughter with anorexia:
It was impossible to get insurance for her, this may be specific to anorexia because of the additional physical risks but I must have rung about 8 different companies, including ones that specifically dealt with chronic health problems but as soon as I gave her diagnosis they declined to insure.
Fortunately, Kate did manage to find a company to cover her daughter, so it is worth persevering – even if just to alleviate some of your travel worries.
Another thing to consider is that your routine will be completely different when travelling and, for many people, a routine can be what really helps them deal with their mental health problems. It is important that you have a support network, whether this is someone who you are travelling with or just at the end of a phone line. Don’t be afraid to call them or send an email – even if you just feel a little bit anxious talking about it, sharing that burden will leave you better able to make the most of the country you are in.
The Gryphon spoke to third-year Physics student Jack about this, he said:
I’ve been very lucky that anywhere I’ve gone I’ve had friends with me who’ve known me for years and know what I am like, so they know how to calm me down when I stress about a new place – which obviously happens often when away! I honestly don’t think I could do it solo.
There are also factors and conditions that you should consider for any specific mental health problems you may have. For many people, holidays are a time to eat whatever you want to make up for months of dieting to get that beach body. For the 1.6 million people with an eating disorder in the UK – whether anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder or some variation of disordered eating – it is not that simple. The pre-holiday diet season pressurises people with a heavy focus on food, exercise, and calories; all this can work as a trigger for those either struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder. Combined with the culture of excess, this can make holidays or travelling a really challenging time.
Alice told The Gryphon her story:
Holidays are full of expectations of overindulgence and enjoying extra ‘treats’. But it is not something I look forward to. It’s something I dread. I am managing at home when everything stays the same day in, day out, but being away from home everything is so different. Even different types of milk can throw me off. It takes a lot of careful planning to make sure I am taking food with me that I feel ‘safe’ with.
Finally, in terms of medications, it is really important to make sure that any you need are legal in the country you are visiting. Not only should medication make it slightly easier to deal with the added stress of travelling but you also do not want to risk experiencing withdrawal from antidepressants or any medication in a foreign country away from home and away from your doctor. Whilst in a lot of countries this should not be a problem, it is still worth double-checking and always making sure to take a copy of your prescription with you just in case you do have any problems. The UAE for instance, has a lot of controls in place when it comes to carrying certain medications into the country.
Whilst mental health conditions can make travelling trickier – it is worth preparing well in advance and persevering because everyone deserves to see the world.
The FCO campaign ‘Mind How You Go’ has some great mental health tips specifically related to travel and follow @FCOtravel and go to https://www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo for useful general and country-specific advice. Also check out mindmatters.uk.com or for specific information on eating disorders try http://www.b-eat.co.uk/
[Images: Vice, FCO, BBC]