For many volunteers, traveling abroad and being immersed in a new culture is a powerful and transformative experience. However, it can also be incredibly challenging and confronting.
Some level of stress, worry, and discomfort is completely normal and to be expected for all participants. This is especially true when you’re in a new environment, exposed to unexpected situations, and are out of your typical routine and comfort zone.
Here are some tips to help you focus on your mental health and wellbeing before, during, and after your time abroad.
We want our programs to be as accessible as possible, but not all destinations are able to accommodate every individual need or circumstance. As part of the application and registration process, it’s important you consider what IVHQ and our local partners should know about you, your identity, and your physical and mental health history. For example, it is important that you are transparent and upfront about any mental health or medical conditions, dietary restrictions or allergies, disabilities, mobility restrictions, or identity / cultural considerations. By sharing relevant information, we can best advise whether your selected destination is suitable for you.
Ensure that this is the right experience for you
Participating in a volunteer abroad experience will require you to be highly independent and motivated. While there is local support available, the team members and supervisors on this volunteer experience are not teachers or mental health professionals. You are ultimately responsible for your own self-care and wellbeing. Local teams will expect all participants to have a suitable level of health, wellbeing, and personal autonomy. Your participation should never jeopardize the health, wellbeing, enjoyment, or safety of others.
To ensure this is the right time and the right experience for you, please discuss your plans with your support network - such as your doctor, therapist / counselor, university resources, travel insurance provider, and trusted family members or friends.
Research your prescribed medications
Medications you have been prescribed may not be available (or even legal) in the country you’re traveling to. It’s important you research potential limitations and consult with your prescriber well in advance of travel. This is the sole responsibility of the participant. By understanding the purpose of your medication, alternative product names, accessibility, and legal or cultural implications, you can feel confident you’ll have access to the care you need while abroad - or you can make alternative plans ahead of time.
Here are some other considerations:
- While traveling, prescribed medications should be in their original packaging and should always be packed in your carry-on. You may need to have copies of your prescription, including generic medication names, on-hand.
- If you take time dependent medication, crossing time zones can be very disruptive. It may be sensible to keep a watch or clock on “home time” and continue to take your tablets at your normal time. However, if you plan to adjust your medication schedule to a new time zone, you should consult your doctor for advice on how to do this carefully and responsibly.
- Refills may not be possible or quantities may be limited in your destination. If it is legal to carry the necessary amount, it’s important that you bring enough medication with you to last beyond your stay, in case of emergency, or have a plan in place to access more.
- There may be restrictions on the amount you can carry to your destination, including any layover countries (even if you are not leaving the airport). Sending medication through the mail might also be illegal.
- The excitement of travel may leave you feeling like you don’t need to take your medication; it’s critical that you continue your care while abroad and plan for necessary adjustments (like jet lag) in advance.
- Participants are required to disclose their medical history to IVHQ in advance, so that, in the event of an emergency, medical professionals understand what medications you take (or cannot take).
- You can talk with your prescriber and/or travel insurance company to find out about prescriptions in different countries, but here are some external resources as you explore your prescribed medication in your chosen destination: CDC: Traveling Abroad with Medicine and International Narcotics Control Board
Identify your support network
Leading up to travel, it is helpful to think about your own support network, who you can turn to while abroad to process your experience, and the best way to get in touch with them. This could include trusted family members or friends, colleagues, community members, primary care or mental health providers, school or university staff, and your travel insurance provider.
Identifying support systems and writing down their contact details can assist you later if you are feeling stressed or in a moment of crisis. It can also be beneficial to think about how you experience stress and what strategies work best for you to manage your symptoms. You are still in your same body, whether you are home or abroad - so how do you decompress? It is normal and expected to feel some level of stress, so think about ways you can focus on your self-care and wellbeing, before you start to feel out of sorts.
Connect with your fellow volunteers, the Local Team, and community members. Exchange contact details at Orientation and make plans to explore together. You are not in this experience alone and building relationships with others can help to alleviate feelings of isolation or homesickness. However, take care to foster relationships that are positive and supportive, rather than detrimental to your experience, or the experience of others. If you’re ever concerned about the wellbeing of another, or note that someone seems to be having a hard time, don’t be afraid to bring it to the attention of a Program Manager and ask for help.
While maintaining connections at home is important and necessary, invest time in exploring your new surroundings. Spending time on your devices may be comforting, but it can also limit your experience. Unplug, get out, and actively engage with the local community! Immerse yourself in cultural activities, traditions, and learn more about local customs and ways of life. Participate in community events or join social gatherings to foster a sense of belonging.
Focus on self-care
Self-care is vital for maintaining your well-being while traveling abroad and coping strategies look different for everyone. Identify what works for you and give them a try if you’re feeling stressed. When possible, prioritize rest, move your body, don’t skip meals and make sure to hydrate, understand your transportation / routes, and carve out time to connect with others.
Being in a completely new environment can be tough, and it’s easy to focus on the hard or bad experiences we are going through. Practicing gratitude can help us to identify the positives, increase optimism, and feel happier. It can also look different for each of us. Practicing gratitude could include journaling (writing down five things you’re grateful for), paying it forward (recognizing and thanking others), or reflecting (setting aside time to think about good things that happened each day). Pro tip! Set a timer in your phone as a reminder until it becomes a regular habit.
Seek professional support
The Local Team is there to provide you with support throughout your experience, but it’s important to remember they are not trained mental health professionals. If needed, seeking professional support is an important step in taking care of yourself and your mental health. This could take many different forms, and it’s important to find the right fit. If you already have care established, check in with your counselor, therapist, or prescriber to see if you can connect virtually. You could also ask the Local Team, travel insurance provider, university (if applicable), or a trusted friend or community member for referral options or resources. Here is an external list of resources you can also visit from Being Well Abroad.
Transitioning back to your ‘normal’ routine after an experience abroad can be disorienting. You may have had a life-altering experience, one that is difficult to put into words or to process. Sometimes called ‘reverse acculturation stress’ or 'reverse culture shock', it can be challenging to assimilate back into your home country’s cultural norms and nuances. You may be coping with nostalgia or missing newfound friends abroad.
All of these experiences are normal, and it may take time to balance reintegrating back into school or work. It can be helpful to remain connected with those who you built relationships with, debrief with a trusted confidante, keep a journal, practice your new language or other skills developed, share your experiences with others, and give yourself grace as you settle back in.Read our tips for returning home