Studying abroad is one of the greatest and most enlightening experiences a student can have. It's a practice in self growth, expression and examination. Although for some students this experience comes with a cost they never expected once they arrive back home.
As they begin to process what they just experienced, they are faced with an array of emotions. For example, The Guardian writes about "Study Abroad Blues." Post Study Abroad Depression (PSAD) is a specific phenomenon that some returnees may face and is a distinctly different experience to reverse culture shock. With reverse culture shock, students often experience a distaste for what they used to take for granted in their home country (for example: a massive variety of food options). Feeling blue, or just missing the experience is a side effect of travel, however that doesn't mean that you have PSAD. The fraction of students who experience PSAD are struggling with a depression. So why do these students feel sad, despondent, isolated, and depressed when they return?
For many students, coming home is like experiencing whiplash. Going from 180 mph to 0 can be hard on the body, so it's best to do it in stages. This article covers those stages and examines different coping strategies.
1. End of the Yellow Brick Road
Symptoms: Fear, anxiety, dysphoria
Many students have been quoted saying that they "felt sick" while packing their bags for home. They feel like a stranger in their own homes. Students undergo major changes in perspective and personality, so when they come back it feels like some things (family, etc.) haven't changed at all and others (school friends, their college campus, etc.) have undergone major changes without them. Studying abroad helps students learn to adapt to new situations, but no one told them how to adapt to old ones.
2. Cast-Away Period
Symptoms: Depression, regret, isolation, disinterest
Old friends have had new experiences, and no one can quite relate to the experiences the students who have been abroad had. They tell stories to help ease the dissatisfaction of returning to "the real world" and they become disinterested in the things they used to love. Many students lose their appetite or they begin to overeat. These students dream of their travels, and don't expect to wake up in familiar surroundings. Where once there was thrill, mystery and adventure around every corner, now there's worrying about the future, homework and no one at home seems to care much about them learning to surf. They regret ever coming home.
3. Carrie Bradshaw Phase
Symptoms: foward thinking, outreach
As the depression begins to cause students to distress, they begin to search online for articles like "Signs you Studied Abroad in X country" and posting them to their social feeds. Social media allows them to be honest without fear of immediate judgement. They start planning their next trip, which is a sign of a positive change in their mindset. They can begin to look forward to something new and stop dwelling on the past. This is the turning point for many students; they may have left their host country weeks or months ago, but they are now beginning their return.
4. Beyonce's Self Titled Album
Symptoms: Acceptance of growth
They have grown as a person from their time abroad, and can apply so many of those new talents and perspectives to their life at home. These people have taken a moment to be still and examine their trip and make use of what it has brought to their lives. Pico Iyer, Global author, examined this action in his Ted Talk "The Art of Stillness." Whether it brought them a newfound sense of peace, a perspective that the world is a much bigger place, a sense of confidence when tackling new experiences, etc., these people are ready to move forward. They have been changed, but they know that happiness is not a location but a frame of mind.
What are universities doing about PSAD?
Universities like Northwestern, Marquette University, and the University of Iowa have dedicated pages on the international study sections of their website to this topic. All of the universities suggest maintaining the momentum of travel by getting involved on campus. The excitement of new people and new activities will help ease you back into life at home. The University of Iowa reminds students to "savor the rare privilege of having two 'homes'!" Northwestern also suggests talking about your experiences, as well as letting people talk about their experiences. Basically, it's a two way street on the road home.
If you think that you, or someone you know, are dealing with PSAD there are ways you can cope and/or help.
- Talk about it: Tell every story you can think of, if you can't find a person, start a blog, write it on social media, talk to friends from your trip, edit some photos from your trip, just remember that you can be as present as you were for all of those memories here, at home. Be present for the new cool, exciting, fun things that will happen. Approach your friend if you feel they are isolating themselves, if they seem down or sad. Let them talk to you about their trip and how they are feeling.
- Get busy: You've become accustomed to a certain level of exercise, of excitement and new experiences. Don't just cut yourself off cold turkey. Plan some trips with friends, try to find new places you've never been around town and stay active.
- Volunteer Abroad: Once you are ready for your next adventure, try planning a trip to volunteer. You have healed and now you can help heal others, while adding another destination in your passport. It is the next step in your traveling career. Me to We is a company that has helped thousands of students volunteer abroad. Check and see if your University has Alternative Winter and Spring Break volunteer trips available. The more trips you go on, the more tools you will have to adapt to new situations in life.
"Have faith in yourself, trust yourself, and know that just as you successfully dealt with culture shock, you will also successfully deal with reverse culture shock." -Dr. Lane
Traveling allows students to become lifelong learners. Traveling opens their minds up to the possibilities the World has to offer. It is also a great way to gain perspective, learn how to become Global Citizens and make a difference. By discussing topics like PSAD and others that affect returnees, we can show them that their confusion and/or depression upon returning home is only momentary, and they are not alone. What students gain from travel can be much more than they can fully grasp upon the few weeks returning home, and they should be given the resources so that they can get the most out of their experiences.