Mental health problems are staggeringly common and can affect anyone at any time. Take me for instance. Eighteen months ago I was in my final semester of my undergrad degree, with good grades, a wonderful boyfriend and living by the beach with my two best friends. My life seemed perfect. Why I suddenly found living so terrifying and exhausting makes no sense at all. But mental illness doesn’t make sense.
Most of that period of my life is now a blur in my memory. After months of pain, medication and therapy, I slowly felt my old self returning. In April last year, the girl who had previously been too anxious to go to the local shops, booked a flight to London. I’d travelled before: studied in the USA and gone on holidays with family, but spending the summer in Europe after university had been a dream of mine for years. That dream finally felt once more within reach. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, compiling Pinterest boards, reading blogs, imagining what was out there for me.
I was taking medication and had gained so much out of courses in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. The doctors were satisfied with my progress and I’d proven my commitment to my mental health, so they gave me their blessing to go. I promised to stay in touch via email and was told I could arrange sessions with my psychologist over Skype if necessary. I’m careful to always carry enough medication and translated copies of a letter from my psychiatrist explaining my mental health history.
I knew I was still recovering, but now I was full of enthusiasm and excitement, about to see far more of the world, and feeling a lust for living that I’d forgotten was even possible. The enormity of what I was doing hit me as my plane soared off the runway. The girl who was always running away from what frightened her, was flying towards the unknown. My fears had been swept aside by excitement, self-belief and the love and support of my family and friends.
For anybody out there reading this and struggling with mental health, I want you to know it’s worth pushing through the despair; fighting until you feel mentally strong enough to book that plane ticket of your own. Travel is the healthiest addiction you can develop. It leaves you craving more and lusting after new experiences. It is, without a doubt, the fastest way you can grow as a human being and turn your life into an inspired one. My wonderful travel tales were made possible by taking charge of my mental health.
Travelling has meant not being afraid to share myself with the world. It’s meant being alone in a foreign country and still thriving. It’s been meeting strangers in hostel common rooms, only to leave together as friends. It’s been sometimes opening up and sharing my mental health journey, seeing the surprise on so many faces that an outgoing, blonde twenty-something can have suffered from depression and anxiety; but it’s also realising just how many others can relate to my story.
There’s definitely no need to be ashamed. I fit within the category most susceptible to mental illness, being a girl in the 16-24 age bracket. This age group represents the highest incidence of mental health problems worldwide. Research also shows that young people like me are travelling more often and for longer periods of time than ever before. A lot of us are likely to have this overwhelming desire to travel, but also an urgent necessity to look after our mental health. I am proof you can do both, and journeying through different countries can actually be an effective antidote to anxiety and depression.
For me, visiting 18 countries in the past year has meant talking in broken Spanish to a sweet Peruvian lady selling fruit on the street, and to a taxi driver who saw the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. It’s been journeying to places I could have never imagined; finding the beauty in a near-abandoned Brazilian town; asking an Andean highlander what brings him the most happiness. It’s been horse-riding beneath a towering volcano in Ecuador, sharing secrets with new friends, drinking wine by a bonfire in Argentina and hand-standing under the Eiffel Tower. It’s been devouring pasta in Rome, topless sunbathing in Spain, and being one of millions dancing in the streets during Rio’s Carnival.
But more than anything, it’s been looking around, be it somewhere magical like Machu Picchu, or this tiny café in Colombia where I’m writing this, and being grateful for the second chance I have to embrace it all. It’s to keep exploring, to keep learning, to keep reading, to keep believing. It’s not letting mental illness run my life. It’s deciding to write all that I can to inspire other strugglers of the world. It’s allowing myself to feel real emotions: letting myself cry, or laugh until I cry. It’s being thankful for every person who has helped me get to where I am, but especially myself, for never giving up.
I’m not naïve enough to think that from now on everything will be easy. Whilst Instagram depicts travellers’ carefree lifestyles of sunsets and waterfalls, sometimes, even with your best intentions, you still have bad days and you aren’t immune to your brain misbehaving while abroad. Occasionally nasty thoughts try to sabotage me, from something as simple as “you’re on the wrong bus” to “this taxi driver is a murderous lunatic”. That’s the nonsensical nature of our minds, and I know mine is a more fragile one at that. So I have to pay attention to how I feel – I have to be honest with myself, constantly assessing whether I am really coping. Sometimes bad things really do happen – I’ve had bags lost, phones stolen, boys treat me horribly and much worse – but that’s when I use all the skills I’ve learnt, like challenging my unhelpful thoughts and tolerating distress through various self-soothing techniques. Travel is character-building: you are thrown into strange situations and have to quickly adapt to new environments.
Despite being thousands of kilometres away from my support system, I never really feel that far, thanks to Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype and email. Travelling hasn’t meant abandoning my mental health. I avoid binging on alcohol or junk food; I take my medication; I keep a journal every day. I keep my brain busy – learning and trying new things, so I keep feeling the thrill of small achievements. I put a lot of effort into choosing the perfect places to stay – I always look at hostel reviews and judge if it will be possible to get a proper sleep, have some time to myself, but equally meet cool people. I’m drawn to pretty surroundings, rooftop terraces and yoga classes.
I’ve come to accept that travel can be exhausting – constantly adventuring, dancing, sightseeing. I’ve learnt not to expect my energy levels to always run at 100%, and I know I need the freedom to nap, to relax, to recharge. I try not to get overly attached to plans, because sometimes they won’t work out, or sometimes my mind changes at the last minute. I tell people when I’m not feeling okay, because that, in itself, is okay. I’ve come to appreciate how most travellers are kind and open-minded. Chances are you’re not alone in how you feel, and people can be grateful for you opening up the conversation about mental health, making space for the truth that often gets ignored, and providing them with an opportunity to share their own feelings.
On my travels, I’ve met extraordinary people living even more extraordinary lives. They’ve shown me possibilities for my future and urged me to seek more from everywhere I go. I’ve fallen back in love with living, thanks to falling in love with the world.
About the author
Emily Mulligan is an Australian Masters student currently living in South America and doing an internship. Follow her occasionally neurotic, but mostly optimistic adventures around the world on Instagram @happily.travelling.
We’d love to hear your experiences of travelling and coping with mental health problems, so leave us a comment below. Who knows, it might just help somebody else out there struggling 👇👇❤️
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