Mental health and the Year Abroad

Mental health is an extremely important topic that everyone needs to pay attention to. Especially students at university – and even more so for students on their Year Abroad – where homesickness, stress, substance abuse, comfort eating and a whole range of anxiety-induced problems can be evident.

Admitting that your mental health is not as good as it should be will be difficult as only you yourself know just how low you’re feeling. But with the lack of ‘real’ physical symptoms it’s hard to go to a GP and express how you feel, how it affects your life and those around you. One good thing about university is the mental health/wellbeing services that are available to help students going through a tough time. The only negative thing I have to say about Southampton’s services is its lack of visibility and publicity. It needs to be more obvious. I remember having just one talk about the centre during first year. It didn’t leave much of an impression on me despite my own mental health. We need more students to work alongside the university’s services to make mental health a topic that we are all discussing openly. (By the look of things on social media, Student Minds is becoming more apparent this year, so am hoping to get involved with that on my return.)

The Year Abroad will undoubtedly heighten all these anxieties during your university experience, regardless of whether you see yourself as a mentally stable and secure person. Moving to another country is exciting, nerve-wracking and scary. I was graced with a whole host of emotions in the run up to my flight to Mexico. But once I’d stepped on Mexican soil, I was happy, excited, and proud of myself for supposedly choosing the ‘brave’ option of Central America. It was only when I’d moved into my host family’s home that it hit me: I’m living, and working, in this small, extremely hot, pretty alien city for the next 10 months, and I’m missing out on another year with my amazing Southampton housemates.

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After a week in Colima

Trying to rid myself of this negative attitude which is definitely not how I expected, or wanted, myself to act, I explored the city a little bit and have discovered a few gems such as the creative, hipster culture centre called La Artería, and the lovely little town of Comala. I also have a number of eateries on my saved places on Foursquare that I need to check out. I’ve figured out a few areas I definitely want to visit while I’m here in Mexico, like Guadalajara, with its museums, Mariachi culture, and vibrant markets. I’ve started a thread on Couchsurfing, and have joined their Colima Facebook group as a way to meet new people. I’ve also realised that I’d prefer to live with students rather than my host family. I want to put myself out there, meet new people, visit new places and experience the culture alongside people my own age. With all this in mind I’m not viewing the house-hunt process or the whole year as a stressful, worrying one; I’m going to take it as it comes.

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Southampton to Mexico City

After a claustrophobic and extremely long 18-hour journey from London, stopping not just once but twice in Canada, myself and the other ten Southampton students had just about survived each other’s company on the way to Mexico City. Having arrived in the hugely populated and traffic-driven city in the dark, early hours of the morning, the taxi journey to the hotel was a quiet one as we, all sleep deprived and groggy, tried to figure out the aesthetic of Mexico’s capital.

After one day to relax, catch up on sleep, and get our bearings, the remaining time in Mexico City was organised by the Anglo, a Mexican language institute with various centres around the country – seven out of eleven of us will be working there this year. As we explored the city’s attractions we all finally got to know each other properly and it seems a huge shame that this has only just happened before we all go our separate ways. Nevertheless, we’d decided from day one that we would all visit each other over the year, and the early plans of a Christmas trip to Oaxaca and Chiapas has already taken a vague shape.

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One of the main things that I’m always on the look out for in other countries is street food. Because we were being ‘toured’ by someone from the Anglo it was his job to keep us ‘safe’ – basically, we had to avoid street food. Obviously, I thought this was kind of ridiculous. We need to build up our tolerance to local authentic food and the way to do it is to avoid Western looking restaurants and go for the more rustic ones, or even better, eat off the street. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to do the latter but myself and Bex stumbled upon a very basic looking, family-run restaurant serving a small but authentic breakfast menu. A plate of enchiladas with salsa verde, refried beans, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice came at just 50 pesos, around £2.

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As we strolled around the city it was evident that its residents are politically driven, upset and losing faith in the Mexican government, police and institutions. On buildings, statues and in plazas people had made their thoughts and concerns clear in the form of political graffiti and art. ‘43’ and ‘Justicia’ were sprawled everywhere referring to the tragic case of the 43 desaparecidos – 43 students who supposedly went ‘missing’ a year ago in Iguala, Guerrero. Since then, and following various protests and demonstrations demanding more information about the case, there has been hardly any progress regarding the whereabouts of the students. It is widely believed that the government or police have assassinated the 43 with this becoming stronger after the discovery of a mass grave which was initially thought to contain the bodies of the students. The case has given the country an even stronger reason to believe their police and government are corrupt and dishonest. With the abundance of political graffiti there is no doubt that the government are aware of the country’s worries and I only hope that the political scene in Mexico will grow stronger in order to prove their point and present the government with a people who are willing to fight for justice and won’t stop until the truth has been spilled.

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Update: I’m now in Colima, a suburbs-like area where the majority of shops are a bus ride away. It’s also extremely hot compared to Mexico City. This is going to take some getting used to.