Extra baggage: travelling with a mental illness

Published

Illustration of a person's head with labels of mental health

Credit: Flickr/The People Speak!

Amy Shimmin
Writer

Travelling and mental health are two unlikely terms paired with the student experience.

Over the years, after two study abroad periods and countless weekends away, my attitude towards packing for a trip has completely changed. Gone are the days of packing two outfits a day and thirty pairs of knickers (just in case) for a long weekend break – my logic has now slid to the other end of the spectrum, towards a “pack the essentials and I can get anything else when I’m there” approach. The essentials, now, are toothbrush and toothpaste, my passport, EHIC, phone charger, bank card and the medication that, frankly, keeps me in a mindset suitable to engage in frequent travel.

Travelling and mental health are two unlikely terms paired with the student experience. Spend a summer working in the USA! Study abroad for the chance of a lifetime! Take a gap year! Firms like STA exist with the purpose of targeting a travelling, student audience. But mental health is, increasingly, a feature pertinent to studying. While most students will face temporary issues such as stress, a University UK study reveals that almost 60,000 students disclosed a mental health condition or illness to their institution in 2017-18, in nearly a 500% increase from 2007-08. It’s not unlikely, then, to assume that these students will also do some form of travel, whether that be a study abroad period, a summer holiday, or even just a break to visit friends.

Travel insurance – a necessity if you’re leaving the country – can sometimes prove an additional hurdle, especially if your diagnosis is recent or particularly stigmatized. Some insurance companies will only insure under a standard policy if your treatment and health has been stable for a specified period of time, and failing to declare a health condition – mental or physical – could render your insurance void. While some will cover for newly emerged mental illness during travel, it’s likely an existing condition would not be covered. It’s always worth reading the small print, as a relapse during travel for an undeclared illness may make things much more difficult.

In some cases, you may have to seek dedicated insurance through companies that specialize in pre-existing conditions (that’s any condition you’ve had symptoms or were diagnosed with prior to travel). Companies such as All Clear specialize in policies for people with mental illnesses; while these policies may cost slightly more than a high street provider, the security that comprehensive cover will bring is priceless.

One whisper you may hear if you’ve been in hospital for a period of time for your illness is that it will prevent you from travelling to certain countries, especially if you were detained in hospital under a section. However, Quality Compliance Systems states that this may stem from questions in the USA’s and China’s visa application process. While their forms ask if you have ever had a mental disorder and risk-posing behaviour linked to this (USA) and if you are experiencing mental disorder (China), there appears to be no requirement to disclose medical records, and many people online have reported successful entry to these countries following a hospital stay.

If you take medication for your illness, you will need to factor this into your trip planning, too. As with any medication, pack enough not just for the duration of your trip but also a few days extra to allow for any potential delays returning. (You never know!) The Foreign and Commonwealth Office provide comprehensive advice regarding travelling with medication: they also advise travelling with a copy of your prescription or a letter from your doctor if you need to prove the need for your medication, or need to source more during your trip. It may also be useful if you’re travelling in a particularly remote area to consider translating this into the local language. It’s also worth checking the legal status of some drugs in your destination: some psychotropic drugs that can be legally prescribed in the UK may be, or contain ingredients that are, illegal overseas.

Basic travel advice, too, can be useful in ensuring you stay safe while travelling. Share your itinerary with someone you trust so they can verify your location in an emergency. Familiarize yourself with emergency phone numbers as an act of good practice – 112, 911, and 999 are the most common around the world. If you’re travelling with your phone (who doesn’t nowadays?!) you should also receive a text from your network on arrival with important information, including the local number. In event of crisis overseas, you can access crisis hotlines and webchat services in most countries. These will generally be in the local language, but countries with large Anglophone communities may offer English language services, such as Samaritans in Spain (Spain), International Helpline Berlin (Germany), and SOS Help (France).

A little work before you leave may save you much more time in the long run. Check in with your doctor, mental health team, or psychologist to create an emergency plan if necessary, and iron out any worries before departure. Be realistic about your limitations – long, busy days can be taxing to anybody’s mental health, and be careful with drink and drugs. Be honest with yourself and people you are travelling with – if you are travelling alone, try to check in as much as reasonably possible with someone at home. Travelling with a mental illness can take some extra planning, but it isn’t impossible.