This week (13-19 May) in the UK, it is Mental Health Awareness Week. Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, the campaign selects a theme – this year, body image – and encourages conversation to dispel the stigmas around mental health, trying to help the community reach out and support each other. If you are interested in reading their reports and guides on mental health and body image, or wish to get involved this week, please do click here for more information.
Mental health is a prominent topic for all of us. It is a topic that has especially played on my mind this past year, since I have been studying abroad in America. This is not an uncommon worry: when I recently asked my Instagram followers for questions surrounding my study abroad experience to answer for a blog post, the topic of mental health arose from a very good friend. So today, I’d like to break down some of my mental health story since I’ve been abroad – both related to body image as per the theme, but also in general.
It’s fair to say that whilst I’ve had a slightly wobbly past with depressive episodes and disordered eating (predominantly in my early-mid teens, exacerbated by physical health problems and other personal circumstances), over the past two years at university in the UK I had gotten to a place where I was doing really, really well. I was leaving the house nearly every day, working a part-time job alongside studying, going to the gym multiple times a week, and enjoying a stable enough balance between healthy food and treating myself. I had finally begun to stop making excuses to avoid having to go out and see people or do things. This doesn’t sound like much, but considering I missed roughly half a year of school at the age of 14 when I didn’t get out of bed most days, this had been a vast improvement for me. But when you move to a new country, your routine will undeniably change. For some, this isn’t a struggle, or is even a welcome fresh start. I, however, had perhaps foolishly not thought about the ways this would impact my previously-improved state of mind, and have spent a long while floundering because of it. For this reason, I wanted to talk through some things that I have observed to have had an unexpected impact on my mental health, some things I wish I had known before flying out here, and some new coping mechanisms I have learned to help me get through.
*As a disclaimer – as I am sure you will all realise, but just in case – everyone’s experiences of mental health will be vastly different, and some of the experiences and information may not be relevant or helpful to you if you were in a similar situation (I can only be speculative that some of these things would have been helpful to me anyway). For this reason, I do not profess to be some fount of infinite knowledge about mental health and studying abroad, nor will I be able to tell someone in a similar position exactly what to do to help. I am just writing my experiences so that, if someone happens to read them and be able to relate, they might be able to get even the slightest kernel of hope or advice from it or feel less alone in their own experience. And also just because, as ever, this blog is my own outlet – opinions all my own, that kind of spiel. As ever, my comments and messages on social media/email are welcome to anyone who wants to (politely) reach out.*
Firstly, body image. Of course, everyone has their preconceptions about Los Angeles – that it’s full of super fit model-like people who work out all the time and have bodies that’d fit in perfectly in glossy magazines. First and foremost, it is important to note that this is not completely true. Los Angeles – just like all of the US cities I have been to – suffers from an economic divide that aligns the ability to be healthy with your basic income: healthy food can set you back an extortionate amount of money, whereas you’re guaranteed to find a burger for under four dollars. I address this topic in an earlier ‘Perusals…’ if you happen to be interested. What this does mean is that no college student here has a ‘perfect’ body, whatever society has tried to make that mean: I am physically not out of place in the slightest, and nor would be someone much bigger or much smaller than I. However, that does not mean that food culture in Los Angeles has not had a profound impact on my mental health. Arriving in a new country, you may find that some of the ingredients you rely on to make your go-to diet aren’t available, or taste odd, or cost an arm and a leg. You may be greeted with new popular delicacies whose nutritional values you don’t quite know. You may – as I was – be greeted with signs telling you that the chemicals your food was exposed to in a particular fast food restaurant MAY CAUSE CANCER and have your inner hypochondriac sparked (don’t worry: it turns out California has ridiculous laws which mean they put signs about cancer risks anywhere you may possibly encounter anything almost-certainly safe in the quantities you will actually be exposed to, from parking lots to supermarkets: it seems to be solely for the purpose of covering their own back if they get sued. You will be fine.)
All of this – combined with my apartment having the smallest excuse for a kitchen you will ever see, shared with a particularly unpleasant housemate – means that my previous routine went right out of the window. I fluctuated between worrying so much about my weight that I would buy the smallest amount of salad that I could get for under $6 from the extortionate student union salad bar (spoiler: not much at all, all cold with no dressing), to worrying so much about money that I’d go across the street and have embarrassingly cheap fries for dinner, prompting a cycle of guilt whichever side I was on. This was compounded by a change in my workout routine: when I stepped into the student gym to find seas of muscular twenty-something year old men with arms that look like they could crush me in seconds, lifting what I’m certain are dangerously heavy weights, I panicked. In my gym back in Norwich, there were often many elderly people, less physically intimidating people, plenty of other young women – normal people from all walks of life who, like me, enjoyed working out for the mental benefits as well as the physical. Despite having a hip condition which means I can’t do more than a speed-walk on the treadmill most days, I didn’t ever feel exposed or different. Entering into this unfamiliar gym, which seemed a world away to the one where I had become comfortable with physical exercise in the first place, set me paces back both physically and mentally, undoing a fair bit of the work I had put into getting healthier, and thus further igniting my paranoia about my own body as I put back on 4kg of the 16kg I had lost back in Norwich last year.
Looking back on this year aware of the neglect I have been putting my body under with my ever-more-frayed relationship with food and exercise, I wish someone had told me earlier that being a creature of habit will not transpose well onto a new environment. It may sound obvious now, but it hadn’t really sunk in that if I am only comfortable preparing a handful of meals of known quantities, then standing in a supermarket aisle where even the most simple food items seems to have twenty unrecognisable additives and flavourings searching for my known quantities might become traumatic. I wish I had taken some time at the beginning of the year to take in my options, maybe tried to find the most similar food items to swap into my routine so that I could continue going on as normal. I wish I had thought about planning for change in advance – maybe learned some more malleable recipes, or at least been prepared for difference so that I wouldn’t have crashed so badly upon realising that I couldn’t regularly afford cheese or berries. Of course, preparedness wouldn’t have accounted for everything, as some things couldn’t have been predicted; I wish I had the courage to put my own needs above my fear of encountering the horrible housemate and stood my ground in the kitchen, but that’s an unexpected conclusion I had to come to terms with on my own. Furthermore, all of the above are very big asks that are very easy to say in hindsight, I know. But I do think that I had allowed myself to put my disordered-eating past behind me and ignored the possibility that such a big culture shock had the potential to be so destructive to the new norms I had established. If I were to do this again, I would have stopped trying to bury my past and confronted it head-on, thinking consciously about the ways my relationship with food could have potentially changed so that I could try and prepare for different scenarios. This is not conceding to my problems with food, rather acknowledging their presence as the only means of being able to move on from them.
Aside from body image, another significant trigger of studying abroad is the potential for loneliness. UCLA is a massive campus, with roughly 45,000 students, something I thought I would enjoy as it meant I was less likely to ‘stand out’ – one of my worst nightmares. However, I have learned the hard way that bigger does not mean better – going from a relatively closed and comfortable environment such as UEA to a massive one such as UCLA left me simultaneously crowded and isolated. Crowded in the sense that, on such a massive campus, everyone is just a number: when you meet so many people so briefly, and your classes change over so often due to the short terms, it is near impossible to find someone (staff or other student) who cares about you personally or is available to allay your fears and panics. Isolated in the sense that, when you enter into such a large community as a junior, everyone already has their ‘routine’, their friends, their groups and their activities: joining all of this late can mean a lot of hostility when people could have been welcoming you in. And if you thought going to a large multi-cultural campus would mean you wouldn’t become ‘that English one‘ then think again – the questions about home and accents and Brexit become haunting when they’re all anyone cares to find out about you. While I am glad for the classes that UCLA has given me the opportunity to take and the fantastic campus pride that really gave me something to root for this year – I will always be a proud Bruin as my new ankle tattoo attests – I will also concede that a smaller campus would have been much better for my mental health. In my attempts to ‘blend into the crowd’ I let myself become hopelessly lost and isolated, feeling like there were very few people I could reach out to, and not wanting to constantly bother the three or so friends I had made. Making your mark in such a big field requires having the confidence and ego to make yourself known – not in the negative way I had envisaged, but in an ‘I want you to remember me so I feel able to ask for help later’ way. I feel that a smaller university may not have been able to provide me with the vibe I was seeking when I picked out UCLA – the school spirit, the academic excitement, the ‘true US college experience,’ but I wish I had factored in my ability to fall into isolation (and the difficulties I have historically had reaching out for help) when taking on such a massive campus, and perhaps considered somewhere smaller where I would feel less like one of 45,000 and more able to reach out to others.
I have also been a victim of my own ignorance, in some respects. I admittedly know nothing about health insurance plans. Having never needed to think about it before in my life (reminder – let’s preserve the NHS, yes?), I was thrown into a world where receiving treatment for something not or only partially covered by my insurance plan would result in me shelling out more than it would cost to fly home and be treated for free. Because of this, I ignored every single sign of a potential illness or injury, from a briefly-dislocated knee that really should have received an MRI or an x-ray, to my rapidly fluctuating mental health. Thinking about it now, my one biggest wish is that I had read up all I could on my health insurance plan, and find out exactly what it did and did not cover with regards to my medical history. Knowing what I know about my own mental health tendencies, I wish I had checked my plan so that I could be completely certain what it did and did not offer, so that I might have been more likely to reach out to the mental health services that do exist on campus, even if it was just for an appointment where I could talk to somebody about how I was feeling. I do not know how easy or hard this would be, as I simply never tried. But my biggest advice to anyone with any form of health history – physical or mental – is to know their insurance plan and their university’s services inside out. Worst case scenario, the services are not easily accessible, and you’re in the same position you started in. But in the instance that your insurance might cover a session if you had an emergency, it is one hundred percent best to know in advance rather than panic searching when things start to go wrong.
Overall, this year has tested my mental health more than it had been tested in a good few years. That’s not necessarily been a completely bad thing – I am more self-aware, have more respect for my boundaries, and know more often now when to draw the line to best preserve my own wellbeing. But I probably shouldn’t have let it get to this to learn those things about myself. I perhaps should have factored my own potential limitations into my decisions, taken some brave steps to establish exactly where I stood, and taken responsibility into my own hands when I was well enough to do so, long before embarking on this journey. And to others who are about to stir up their routines, be it moving across a country or an ocean or even smaller scale such as changing a job or house, the one thing I would urge you to do is to confront your mental health: talk about it with anyone you feel comfortable with, or even just address yourself – what has gone wrong in the past, what could go wrong again, and do you have a plan of action if it does? Admitting these things shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of: it is the bravest thing we can do, and allows us to be aware of ourselves and our limits that can sometimes prevent us getting into potentially dangerous or miserable situations. And if things start going wrong unexpectedly in the moment, know that you are not alone, even if it feels like it. One thing I have learned recently is that many of my peers had their own struggles with mental health whilst on their years abroad too – it is not an abnormality, or something to be ashamed of, despite all the study abroad websites and talks and advocates telling you how it’ll be the ‘best experience of your life.’ Many people find themselves struggling through in one way or another, we just tend not to realise and let ourselves spiral further looking at the ‘great adventures’ everyone appears to be having in their Instagram stories. Talking to some extent about the tensions and emotions that can come from undergoing such a big life change really does open your eyes to the fact that what you’re feeling is not ‘wrong’ and you do not deserve to suffer. While it is important to remember that mental health struggles cannot always be prevented, or “cured”, it does not mean that the only ‘solution’ is to take what comes, however bad the experience is. Allow yourself a moment to think about yourself – it isn’t selfish, and you do deserve it. If you cannot, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone else – anyone else – who might be able to guide you. In such a significant moment, it is not a defeat to ask for help. There are more people willing to help than you realise.