Mental health can be a journey. Journeying while struggling with mental health challenges, however, can be almost impossible.
In 2015 I traveled to Puno, Peru, to work on a research project as a part of my graduate degree in international public health. Before enrolling in the degree program, I had spent the better part of the previous two years traveling and living abroad in some capacity and was excited to have the opportunity to travel as a part of my career.
As my departure date to Peru creeped closer, I started seeing a therapist at the university health center to talk about concerns I had about traveling. I had experienced acute depression that year for the first time and was nervous it would creep back in while I was in a low-resource setting abroad. My in-person therapist told me many students feel this way before completing fieldwork abroad and I would be fine to push through.
I didn’t want my fears around my mental health to stop me from traveling. I wanted to be “strong.” So off I flew to Puno.
The living and working conditions I encountered there were challenging. Because I wasn’t acclimated to Puno’s high altitude (3,825 m or about 12,550 feet), it reduced my ability to sleep and exercise. It decreased my appetite and I started losing weight. My clothes became baggy sacks; I could pull the waistband of my pants a good four inches from my body.
We lived next to a nightclub that played loud music six nights a week until 4 am. I slept with earplugs every night but couldn’t block it all out.
Even though we were close to the equator, the high altitude meant temperatures ranged from the high 20s to low 60s.There was no heating in the building where we lived and worked — or anywhere else in Puno for that matter — so I was constantly cold, unless I was in my bed. It felt like living in a cave.
The local staff who worked in the building didn’t give us keys to lock our bedrooms, so someone stole my research partner’s tablet. My research partner was upset with the way the local staff reacted. They, in turn, began to resent her and me by association. They started bullying us by locking us out of the kitchen, not inviting us to events where other student researchers were invited, and cursing and calling us names on Facebook.
My research partner and I didn’t have ethical approval to begin our research for a full four weeks after I arrived. There wasn’t much to do but wait and suffer through severe ennui.
The situation was terrible and any person could see that.
I didn’t have the resilience to withstand it the way mentally healthy folks (like my fellow student researchers) did. I recognized that while the other students living in Puno with me struggled sometimes, they didn’t take it as hard as I did it. It didn’t break them the way it broke me. That’s how I knew I was sinking back into depression.
I began lashing out at everyone — my parents, my boyfriend, the people I was working on the project with. I cried a lot for no apparent reason. I felt helpless, trapped, and freezing cold.
Seeing the other student researchers “grin and bear it” while I was indignant and weepy made me feel even crazier. I finally concluded I needed to leave Puno as soon as possible to prevent falling further into the darkness.
I moved up my return flight to depart a month earlier than originally planned. This meant I wouldn’t get to explore the rest of Peru with my boyfriend or my parents as we had originally planned. I felt defeated because depression had “won.”
In one sense I was disappointed in myself for not being “stronger” and persisting through the anguish. But in another, I felt relieved to finally have access to the social support and basic physical resources (like warmth!) I needed to start coming back to myself.
Not all long-term travel experiences are the same, but there is always the potential to struggle with mental health when you’re traveling. It could be your depression or anxiety creeping in, or homesickness, culture shock, or loneliness. Travel is not so much an “escape” from troubles of “real life” as it is simply a different version of real life, with its own host of troubles.
I was lucky to have had access to in-person therapy before heading to Peru, but obviously I had to end that relationship once there. Plus, my therapist had egged me on to live abroad without discussing any preventive strategies I could use to stay emotionally afloat.
I haven’t been on any solo travel adventures since Peru. Part of the reason is a fear of being in a situation where I’m struggling with my mental health and don’t have the support I need. Some of that fear has been abated since I started using text therapy. It allows me to communicate with my therapist anytime and anywhere, whether I’m traveling or simply not close to an office.
If you’re hit by a wave of darkness, sometimes you do need to return to a place where you can have the support you need — medical and otherwise. I am comforted in knowing I might not have to cut the trip short next time. Now I can literally pack my therapist in my backpack.