There are 3 main aspects to health: Physical, Mental and Spiritual. It could be argued that emotional health is a 4th but in my opinion (for what it’s worth) I believe this would really come under mental health.
When we are travelling we want to get the most out of the experience and the best way to do this is to keep yourself as healthy as possible.
This is my focus because for literally half of my 26 years on this earth I have suffered with mental health problems. This is no secret and I regularly engage in conversation with others when asked about it. It is something I am not ashamed of and the stigma that surrounds mental health to this very day infuriates me.
I won’t be going into specifics within this post because I’m not sure that this is the correct time or place, but I may do a follow up post if people contact me and feel that it would be useful for them. What I will say is that at times my mental health has been very poor, it would not be any exaggeration to use the words “life threatening.” Luckily I am in a much better place currently and that was why I decided that travel would be beneficial to me, not detrimental.
Travelling or backpacking around the world, will always leave people with a slight feeling of trepidation no matter how excited they are about the trip. They will be left at times thinking “What if something goes wrong when I am so far away from home? “ This is only exacerbated when you suffer from a health condition and so for all those out there who are unsure about whether they can travel when they suffer from mental health problems, I wanted to write this article. You can indeed travel the world. There is nothing stopping you, as long as you have the insight to know whether this is genuinely a good time to do so. If it’s not that is ok too…the world will wait for you until you are ready to explore it’s wonders.
For all other travellers reading this thinking, “but my mental health is fine,” I still urge you to read on. These tips will be useful to you too, especially when in an unknown environment surrounded by strangers.
Shelter: Make sure that wherever you are staying whether it is a hostel, a shared flat or a campervan is somewhere you feel safe. It is important that you are around people that you like and can relate to. Sure you get the odd douchebag everywhere but on the whole it must be somewhere you feel comfortable. If you don’t, it’s time to move on.
Food: It is hard to get a balanced nutritious diet when living on a backpacker budget but it certainly is not impossible. Sure you can live off of instant noodles and cereal but try to get some fruit and veggies in too, your brain and body will thank you for it.
Sleep: You will party, you will work but you also need to sleep. Sleep is extremely important for your mental health and whilst a hostel environment is not always conducive to getting the best nights sleep, it is important to try. I’m by no means saying don’t go out and have fun- I urge you to do exactly that but I also ask that perhaps you have a few nights off a week where you actually have a decent rest. You will not function well with sleep deprivation.
I would say that I can probably count on my fingers the number of backpackers I have met that don’t drink. Backpacking/travelling and drinking go hand in hand. It’s a way people get to know each other and is a big part of the social traveller scene. Alcohol however is a depressant, so whilst its’ great to go out drinking and partying into the small hours give yourself a break every now and again. It will also please your liver and your bank balance!
Being around other people 24/7 can be exhausting. Make sure that you take some time out on your own. “Me time” doesn’t have to cost money, you could just head to the park with a book you’ve borrowed from the book swap shelf at your hostel. Don’t be scared to distance yourself from others if you need to for a while.
We all do it, its human nature to compare ourselves to other people. The thing is, your adventure is exactly that. YOUR adventure. Don’t listen to other people and think “Oh, I’m doing this backpacking thing all wrong.” By all means take the advice of others in where to go and cool things to see and do but do not base your trip on theirs. No ones journey will ever be exactly the same, even two friends travelling together will look at their time away with different memories and perspectives. If someone is saying that they’ve been to 65 different countries in a year, can speak 4 languages and have had the BEST TIME EVER in all the cool spots, take it with a pinch of salt. They may well be telling the truth but it may also be a crock of shit. Comparing yourself to others in any way, will most likely lead to misery. Walk your own path and create your own journey. As a man I worked with once said, “Just do you.”
Mental health problems or not we all have bad days because well, we’re human. Maybe you missed your flight, or your hostel booking got messed up or your boss is being a dick, or you are just homesick. You WILL have days on the road when you think “Why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why did I leave all my friends and family so far behind? I feel so alone.”
Instead of fighting these thoughts go with them. Understand that it is completely normal to have an off day. Be kind to yourself, take the time to do things that you want to do. If you want to literally lay in bed all day, do it. If you beat yourself up and start thinking along the lines of “I shouldn’t feel like this, I’m somewhere that anyone else would be so grateful to be. I’m wasting my time here by hiding in my bed under the covers,” I guarantee you will feel worse. Roll with it and give yourself a mental health day. Most of the time you will feel better in the morning, if you don’t reassess the situation then. Remember- this too shall pass.
When everything around you is new, keep the constants in your life that ground you. Try to have regular contact with your loved ones. It is so easy these days through social media, e-mail, Skype and free apps like Whatsapp and Viber. Call them for a chat or send them a message. They will probably be glad to catch up with you and if you are having a difficult day it might just be that little boost you need.
Keep a travel journal if you find writing helpful. Not only is a place where you can completely be yourself without fear of being judged but it will also remind you of all the amazing things you have done and the incredible friends you have made. Sometimes things are hard to say to another person, especially strangers or new friends. Write it down instead, it will help clear your mind and leave you with the brain capacity to focus on having a great time.
If you are on any medication make sure that when you leave home you have enough with you to last the duration of the trip, or have specific plans in place for how you are going to obtain it whilst you are away. Do your research on the healthcare system of the country you are visiting (including laws around medicines) and take past prescriptions and your Dr.’s contact details with you. It is easy to forget to take medication when your normal routine is turned upside down, so leave yourself a reminder, or set the alarm on your phone. Do not just stop taking your tablets abruptly, this is asking for trouble on so many levels.
Have travel insurance in place so that if you need to visit a Dr. or the hospital you can do so without worrying about the costs. If you are in Australia look to see if your home country is eligible for the Medicare scheme and sort it out as soon as you arrive. Be honest with any insurers. If you don’t declare a previous problem and they find out you will be in big trouble financially. Insurers will cover most things including some mental health conditions. One of mine is unfortunately not covered but this knowledge means that I just need to be more aware of myself and do everything possible to keep healthy in respect to that condition. I did have a nightmare trying to find the right insurance company due to declaring my health conditions- some refused to insure me at all (blog post on that coming soon) but I eventually went with Holidaysafe as they were the best fit for me. Get insurance cover, don’t take the risk.
If you start feeling unwell or have maybe just decided that travel is not for you, have a plan that you can go to and make others aware of it. I suggest trying to make sure that you have enough money for a flight home at all times, or a credit card that you can use solely for this purpose. I understand that this is not possible for every backpacker but even giving someone at home your account details in case of needing an emergency flight, may save you a lot of hassle especially when not feeling your best. Maybe ask a friend back home or a family member if you can contact them if you need support, or have an understanding that if you say you are struggling you may need them to help you out either in terms of finding some sort of help where you are, or by talking to you (in a way that will connect with you) and suggesting it may be time to think about coming home. Hopefully that would never need to happen but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt to have a plan in place. I jokingly said to my travel buddy that if I became extremely manic it was time to ring my mother, book a flight for me back to the UK and tell me I was going to Disneyland. It was of course in jest but she knew where I was coming from!
I hope this has been helpful. I feel like by writing this post I have bared a little bit of my soul but I think it is important for people to stay mentally healthy when travelling. You will have a much better time if you take care of yourself! I also wanted other people who have suffered with mental health problems to know that travelling isn’t an impossibility. It will probably be good for your mental health; Increased confidence, empowerment, higher accountability to oneself and realising that the world truly is a beautiful place out there.
If anyone has any questions, comments or indeed experience of travelling with a mental illness (I hate that term- sorry, I tried to stay away from it in the rest of the post) please feel free to leave it below.
Take care my fellow wanderers! x
Creative unicorn ninja; Travel vlogger/blogger. Green tea enthusiast and lover of dance and art. Currently be found back in England planning the next adventure! Southeast Asia Odyssey coming very soon!
Where I can be found: UK