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Kalamazoo College
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Mental Health and Study Abroad

Dear Students and Parents,

We are writing this letter at the request of the Center for International Programs to provide you with the clearest information and thinking we have about Study Abroad for students who have psychiatric disorders or psychological difficulties.  Our three major concerns are that students maintain their treatment plans while abroad, inform important personnel of their disorders/concerns, and take good care of their medication needs.

First, it is critical that students stay with their prescribed treatment plan to make study abroad a success.  Our experience is that students who do not follow through (especially with medication) end up having a much more difficult experience, causing the host family and program directors serious worry,  and/or having to return to the U.S. before the end of the program.  The best way to avoid these difficult outcomes is to follow the plan that you’ve made with your providers and to be in touch with them or with providers in the host country if you notice any concerning symptoms or have any very disruptive experiences.

Second, it is in the best interest of students who have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders or who know they suffer from psychological difficulties to fill out the Health History form accurately and to let the program manager at K and the program director at the site know of their situation as early as possible.  Some students are hesitant to provide this information. Over the years, we have found that clear communication makes a significant difference in students’ experiences because a safety network can be developed.  That network seems to reassure both students and parents and puts all of us in the best possible position if there is a major problem.

Some students are not forthcoming about their history with mental health because they believe that Study Abroad will provide a respite from their problems.  In our experience, that is not usually the case.  There are so many challenges in living in a different country and some of those challenges create considerable stress.  We have found that the challenges of a new environment can easily exacerbate psychological concerns and psychiatric symptoms.     

The third important concern is medication.  It is very helpful to take all the medication that you’ll need with you, along with a letter from the prescribing provider indicating why you are taking the medication.  If for some reason that cannot happen, it is important that you make a connection with a prescribing provider early in your stay abroad.  We have found that even medications with the same name may be slightly different because they are manufactured abroad.  We also know that it is often difficult to get an appointment at the last minute and running out of medication can complicate life a great deal.

Students often wonder about discussing their mental health situation with their host parents.  Typically, a pretty matter of fact statement early on can be helpful (e.g., “I take medication because I have experienced depression.  I don’t think you need to worry about me because the medication is effective and I’ve learned a lot about managing my difficulties. My parents are completely informed of my situation and are confident that I will be able to do well here.  I also want you to know that you do not have to worry that I will hurt myself.”)  One other note about home stays for those who take medication:  it is extremely important  to make sure that you keep your medication safe and out of the way of children or pets.

Finally for those on medication, it is very helpful to carry a list of your medications with the copy of your passport in case you need emergency medical help.  Knowing the medication you’re taking can make a significant difference to the health professionals in emergency situations.