Trigger warning: this article contains discussions of suicide. In my last post, I talked about my personal experience of travelling with chronic depression. In this post I will address practical tips for how to manage mental illness on the road.
“What are you going to do if you feel suicidal while overseas?” This was a valid question from my psychologist, considering I had been hospitalised only a week earlier and was leaving for South America in two months’ time. The answer is not so simple, when solo travel removes you completely from your regular support network and throws you into an unfamiliar and potentially stressful environment. This is undoubtedly difficult for everyone, and by no means am I suggesting that other people are solely responsible for maintaining your mental health. However, there is no weakness in recognising that sometimes you need extra help and that you don’t have to stick it out alone.
I’ve been seeing my psychologist Nina for about 3 years now. Together we engage in cognitive-based therapy (CBT) to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety in my life. CBT is focused on identifying and acknowledging harmful thought patterns and practising the art of mindfulness. When I started seeing her, I was so paralysed with anxiety that I had an appointment every two weeks. These stretched out to monthly appointments, and I now see her every 6-8 weeks under ideal circumstances. The problem is that when I’m travelling for several weeks or months at a time, I have to rely largely on myself to handle my own mental health.
We don’t all need a therapist to cope with everyday life, but there’s no denying that everyone has a support system upon which they depend. Solo travel completely removes you from your support network and leaves you to fend for yourself. This issue is compounded by a potentially large and inconvenient time difference. The 15.5 hour time difference between me in Colombia and my boyfriend in Adelaide was particularly trying because I was often emotionally vulnerable at times when he was asleep or at work. I had many times when I needed the familiar comfort of his voice and his advice, but had to care for myself.
Hostels in particular can feel very socially isolating, with an overwhelming number of people surrounding you at any time, many of which who will move on within a few days. This rapid movement of people means that social connections are often at a relatively superficial level. Sometimes you will meet people with whom you click on a deeper and more emotional level, but most are “fast friends” to just have fun with. It can be really confronting to tell relative strangers that you have chronic depression, let alone seek support from them.
I’ve experienced crippling loneliness time and time again whilst surrounded by other travellers, and these are the methods I’ve used to cope.
Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing with locals for longer than a couple days can be an easy way to feel part of a family type environment. I stayed with Magui and Santi in Córdoba, Argentina for almost a week and was included in all of their activities and meals. Whilst the language barrier was initially confronting, as my Spanish at the time was at a relatively weak level, it was comforting to feel part of a family environment and have people checking up on me and wanting to interact with me consistently. This was in addition to the added cultural benefit of living with local people and having to constantly practise my Spanish, which led to rapid improvement. I can’t recommend Couchsurfing enough and it really helps to make you feel less alone.
Smaller home-style hostels. Large hostels with several rooms of 10-12 people can feel really confronting, especially to people like me who are decidedly introverted by nature. I especially find it difficult to approach groups of people who I don’t know, because I feel like I am intruding. In my experience, very tiny hostels have been the best experience for me. Most recently, I stayed in Kasaguadua Eco Lodge in Salento, Colombia, which is accessed only by a fifteen minute walk down a jungle path. The hostel only accommodates a maximum of four people in the dorm, with additional private accommodation for up to six people. The communal living area fostered a family environment where we would either watch movies or read together at night. In addition, many travellers stay there for several days because of the remote and serene nature of the property. This meant that I felt more comfortable sharing my feelings and struggles with everyone on the property and consequently felt much less alone.
Study programs. I’ve undertaken two study programs through my university degree: one that moved through Vietnam and the most recent one based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I realise that this is not a valid option for many travellers, but for students who want to travel alone with a safety net and get university credit at the same time, study programs can be an excellent option. Living with the same people for several weeks allows a deeper emotional connection and a stronger sense of solidarity.
Contingency plans. My psychologist asked me to make a list of hospitals in big cities in case I needed to go the emergency department on suicide risk. I also made sure that I filled a big prescription of antidepressants so that I had more than enough to last me the ten weeks I was overseas recently. My trip was also supposed to be longer than ten weeks, but I decided in the interests of my mental health that I couldn’t be away from my support network for that long at this point in my life. It’s important to have a plan or a general idea of what you will do when things get really, really tough so that you don’t feel completely out of control.
Depression doesn’t need to stop you travelling alone, but it is important to prioritise your mental health and make sure that you have the support networks that you need. Chronic mental illness doesn’t define us, but it would be foolish to pretend that we don’t need to travel a little bit differently sometimes. At the end of the day, you won’t enjoy all these amazing new sights if you feel miserable and alone all the time.