Let’s face it – traveling is stressful! It opens up a whole spectrum of new experiences. Some induce anxiety, others cause eating and sleeping disorders. Some may even lead to risky behaviors with alcohol or drugs.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warns, “Overall, mental health issues are among the leading causes of ill health among travellers, and ‘psychiatric emergency’ is one of the most common medical reasons for air evacuation, along with injury and cardiovascular disease.”
Separation from family, departure from routine, fatigue and lack of social support systems, culture shock can all make pre-existing mental health conditions like stress, anxiety, depression and addiction worsen. Some preventive health measures also cause mental illness. WHO elaborates, “Neuropsychiatric disturbances (seizures, psychosis and encephalopathy) occur in approximately 1 in 10,000 travellers receiving mefloquine prophylaxis for malaria. Patients with a recent history of neuropsychiatric disorder, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or psychotic or seizure disorder, should be prescribed an alternative regimen.”
It’s important to pay attention to mental health. Ignoring it can lead to serious health complications or even death. The Centers for Disease Control Health Information for International Travel 2016 handbook cites, “Suicide is the third-leading cause of injury death to U.S. citizens abroad, accounting for 16% of non-natural deaths.”
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) advises travelers to take these mental health precautions while overseas:
Tip 1: Have the conversation
If you struggle with mental health issues, talk with your doctor before you go abroad. Your doctor will have recommendations about traveling with medication, managing your symptoms and avoiding potential triggers. If you’re not sure what issues to discuss, these suggestions from the CDC may help.
Tip 2: Mind your meds
If you take medication to manage your symptoms, have a plan to secure your prescriptions and keep them with you. Before you go, make sure to refill your prescriptions so you have an ample supply. Put some into more than bag, in case a bag is lost or stolen. Take note of time changes and jet lag which could alter your dosage schedule. Your medications should remain in their original containers. Alert TSA as you clear security.
Tip 3: Be sure to insure
Check your health insurance to determine if mental-health related emergencies are covered on your trip. If not, you may have to purchase travel medical insurance. Read the fine print and exclusions for pre-existing conditions. Remember, WHO states psychiatric trauma as a leading cause of emergency evacuation. This evacuation can cost more than $50,000 if you are not insured. In case of emergency, having adequate insurance coverage can mean saving not only your health, or life. It can save tens of thousands of dollars.
Tip 4: Take care of yourself
Make yourself a priority. Be mindful of your mental health while you’re abroad. Try to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly, stay hydrated and get seven hours of sleep per night. Listen to what your emotions are telling you; take time for yourself if you need it. You’ll enjoy your trip more if you pay attention to your limits.
Tip 5: Look for professional help in your area
Be prepared for an emergency. If you have a mental health emergency, you’ll need to know who to turn to for help. The local United States Embassy can help you find practitioners at your destination. Your travel insurance provider generally has a 24×7 hotline to assist you with referrals and support. You may also consider finding a local support group. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous both have chapters in other countries.
You might also check out one of the new mental health support apps to track your mood or talk to licensed counselors.
Tip 6: Stick to your routine
It may be difficult to stick to a medicine schedule when you’re far from home. Ask your physician for a conversion schedule. Try to plan out your days abroad to take your meds at consistent times. Consider setting a cell phone alarm to remind yourself when it’s time to take your meds.
Tip 7: Stay alert
Some mental health symptoms may not appear until after you return home. Stay vigilant when you return; talk about your concerns and seek help. Being mindful of your mental health is the first step to being healthy.
“There isn’t anybody out there who doesn’t have a mental health issue, whether it’s depression, anxiety, or how to cope with relationships. Having OCD is not an embarrassment anymore – for me. Just know that there is help and your life could be better if you go out and seek the help.”
~ Howie Mandel
Visit DepartSmart.org for more resources.