Counseling and Mental Health

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SIT Study Abroad has a team of trained Student Affairs duty officers available 24 hours a day to respond to potential threats to student safety and manage emergency situations. 

Call: 802.258.3212

SIT Study Abroad programs offer exciting academic and personal challenges, including the experience of adapting to another culture. The cultural adjustment process requires psychological flexibility in the face of different customs, beliefs, and living conditions. These new situations may trigger “culture shock” while studying abroad, marked by symptoms such as sadness, anxiety, homesickness, and difficulties eating and sleeping, to name a few. The adjustment process, with all its ups and downs, is a manageable experience for the vast majority of participants, but sometimes preexisting health conditions can become exacerbated in new settings or new conditions can emerge. You are always encouraged to seek assistance if you are not feeling well or have any questions at all.

Students who are currently managing a mental health condition are encouraged to discuss the appropriateness of a semester abroad with their mental health provider. SIT’s health review process is designed to support students in making the safest and most reasonable choices regarding their mental health; full disclosure on health forms is necessary to aid in this process. Views on mental health vary greatly around the world, as do the types of resources available. Some countries have a broad range of services including access to English-speaking or western-trained providers, while others have more limited options.

SIT has a team of counselors available to connect with students remotely and counseling resources in-country have been identified, where available. However, students can best prepare for a positive study abroad experience by developing a set of healthy coping strategies to use while on the program. We encourage all students to create a wellness plan tailored to their individual needs and specific study abroad program. Strategies might include journaling; reaching out to a friend; taking a walk; meditation; yoga; breathing exercises; avoiding substances such as alcohol, caffeine, or sugar; or simply taking prescribed medications as directed.

Meet the SIT Counselors, Abbie Shepard Fields and MaryBeth Caseiro.

Preparing for your specific program

You are encouraged to explore not only the academic and cultural opportunities available in your chosen program but also how the program structure might impact you on a personal level. As you prepare for your study abroad experience and shape your personal wellness plan, here are some things to consider:

• What is the nature and length of your program? Semester, summer, single/multi-country, short term, custom?

• How physically rigorous is the program?

• What is the nature of the learning community during your program? How much group work and contact with fellow students can you anticipate? How much private down time is optimal for you, and how will you adapt if there is less alone time than you’re used to?

• What is the expected amount of travel/excursions? For example, most programs include in-country excursions while others feature travel to several different countries, resulting in frequent periods of transition and cultural adjustment.

• Do you have social identities (such as sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, religion, race, ethnicity, to name a few) that are important for you to express?

• Is there a homestay component and, if so, what is the location/duration of the homestay? What can you expect in the family context?

• What are other lodging considerations? Will you be sharing a room with another student during travel?

• What is the availability of in-country medical and mental health resources? 

• If you take prescription medications, can you bring an adequate supply with you into the country?

• What is the access to internet and phone usage for maintaining connections at home?

Components of a wellness plan

Identify stress triggers. Consider the types of situations that you find particularly stressful. Awareness of potential stressors is the first step in minimizing difficulties or responding effectively if they do occur.

List specific coping strategies that are useful for you and that you can employ while on program. Many people find that physical exercise, spending time in nature, or different forms of artistic expression are important components of self-care at home, so it makes sense to engage in these or similar activities while traveling or living abroad to help maintain mental health and well-being. Make sure to ask your program staff for help accessing such experiences.

Enlist your support system. Identify in advance people who are willing and available to be part of your support team: parents, other family members, friends at home, and/or a therapist. Think about how to obtain meaningful support while abroad for identities or matters that may be important to you, for example, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, race, ethnicity, disability, religion or spiritual practice, sobriety, and so forth.

Get adequate sleep. Sleep is foundational for optimal physical and mental health. Traveling internationally across time zones or adjusting to a new environment with its distinct sleeping arrangements can lead to disrupted sleep. Bring along ear plugs or listen to relaxation apps to help you fall asleep in new situations.

Consider diet. New foods and eating customs are an important part of the study abroad experience, but diet changes can sometimes disrupt gastrointestinal functioning. Keep an open mind and enjoy the local cuisine, but also bring along over-the-counter remedies or calming teas and identify bland foods in -country that you can rely on if you don’t feel well.

Incorporate exercise into your routine. Maintaining physical activity is important for well-being. Find out about local resources/options in-country for exercise or sports. If you are a jogger or like to take yoga classes but will be in a location where those activities are not an option, investigate other ways to get exercise that are culturally appropriate and available.

Develop communication strategies and know how to ask for help. Know your early warning signs of stress, anxiety, depression, or other health conditions. Practice communicating your symptoms both in English and the host language. Write down translations of specific terminology in the host language that you may need to communicate with a health professional. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between normal adjustments to a new environment versus symptoms of a more serious health issue. When in doubt, it is best to consult with a health professional. Do not wait until your symptoms are severe and interfere with functioning; inform your  academic director, program director, or other SIT staff as soon as possible.

Planning in advance is the first step in proactively shaping an enjoyable study abroad experience. But there is much that cannot be predicted or controlled, and many experiences will surprise you once you are immersed in the new setting. After all, that’s part of the attraction of studying abroad! Maintaining flexibility and a positive attitude will go a long way in helping you adapt to and embrace your cross-cultural experience. Please do not hesitate to ask questions or address your concerns at any point along the way.