Managing Mental Illness While Abroad

Mental illness comes in different forms, from depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder and body dysmorphic disorder. Our symptoms show up in a variety of ways. For some, it is isolation and for others, it may be self destructive behavior, such as binge drinking to the point they can’t stand. I struggle with both depression and anxiety and have since I was in 7th grade.

The point of the article is to validate that although you may be in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, you can still struggle with your mental illness and it’s okay. Wherever you run or travel to in the world, you’re always there accompanied by your mind — you can’t run from yourself. The article is also meant to be a subtle reminder for you to check in with your self and ensure you are continuing to take care of yourself. Sometimes these things have a hold on us and we don’t even realize we’ve been pulled under again. You will find tips and resources that will aid you in checking in with yourself.

Know your signs for when it is showing up again

I point this out because a couple of days ago, I started feeling really bad. I was sad, which I linked to my lack of a strong community in Oslo. My two biggest signs are when I isolate myself and my room is incredibly messy, messy beyond a few misplaced shirts. The combination of these three things reminded me that I wasn’t okay and that I may be getting depressed again. Depression, like many mental illnesses come in waves – one day you’re fine and the next, you’re questioning everything you’ve ever done and doubting your progress. It does come in waves, but it’s easier to avoid drowning when you have the foresight that it’s happening and the resources to uplift yourself.

What are your signs that you notice each time before your mood swings or your mental illness reemmerges?

What makes it worse and minimize factors

You can’t always avoid your mental illness all together, but you can empower yourself by actively minimizing the factors that make it worse. The best way to do this is to actually figure out what these factors are. You might already know what they are, but if you don’t, it could be helpful to do some research and figure typical factors associated with the mental illness. As time passes, pay attention to your emotions and figure out which factors are unique to you. Keeping a log book of your emotions, behaviors, and your daily activities can show you what might influence you.

For me, lack of sleep, excessive drinking, and negative self talk exacerbate my depression. While not taking care of myself is a symptom, it is also a factor that makes it worse. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you could feel even worse as well. You mental illness, depending on what it is, could be made worse by putting yourself in a situation that would make you stress over a test, like not going to class or procrastinating on a take-home assignment. It could even be a lack of vitamin D (Oslo definitely lacks sun during the spring semester).

Ways to prevent or side step that mental illness

As my struggle is predominately depression, these suggestions may seem to fit that best, but some could also apply to you.

Recognize when you’re starting to feel bad. Before you are in the depths of your depression and you can’t find the surface, catch it and do things that generally make you feel better

  • Reconnecting with my community or feeling a sense of accomplishment by completing tasks make me feel better. If you’re isolating yourself, grab a friend when you do these activities. They’d be more than happy to join you
  • Moment of gratitude –  Take a minute to remind yourself of how great you are and the cool experiences you’re having. This is useful if your depression is linked to depreciating thoughts about yourself
  • Get out of your head and go outside, it’s even better if you invite a friend
  • Get up and take a shower, clean your room, remove the dirty dishes from your room
  • Have a health check – you might have low iron or vitamin D because of the lack of sun. Maybe buy vitamin D tablets
  • Go work out. Try a yoga class or go hike somewhere. You’re surrounded by mountains
  • check in with your community back home. Having that connection with your close, familiar friends or family could be what you need. They may even be the ones to notice that you’re not doing alright
  • See a counselor if this stuff isn’t cutting it. I saw one in Bergen, related to the growth I was doing as a person. It’s an option if you want it.

Resources

Uni of Bergen Counseling office – Request to see the actual psychologist. The first person you speak with is not a psychologist/therapist, but a counselor. Great to talk to, but I don’t think they have the same qualifications as the aforementioned.

Uni of Oslo Counseling Office – I haven’t used these services, but the accessible layout of the website is promising.

If you’ve paid the student fee, which you have, these services are available for you.

 

Pepperkakenbyen

Back in November, I wrote a post about an event I hosted with ESN Bergen where we built gingerbread houses. Dozens of international students came to the event to roll dough, cut shapes, bake the fragrant dough into houses, and decorate them in different candies and chocolates. Mine was lovely because it was so tiny and had stained glass windows (yes, stained glass windows made from melted hard candy.) Each of these houses help make up the Pepperkakenbyen, also known as the WORLD’S LARGEST GINGERBREAD CITY!!

Each year, the innhabitants of Bergen come together to  build this gingerbread city! Children, students, and even organizations build their own houses and deliver them to the venue and they receive free tickets for entrance in exchange, otherwise, it’s 70 kroner.

I did this very Bergen activity with my American friend since it was one of his last days in the city. It was such a Bergen thing to do and it was well worth the experience. If you don’t participate in an event that gives you free acess, just know that the 70 NOK student discounted is well worth it!

As soon as I walked in, I was struck by the detail of the gingerbread titanic! It was amazing. When we walked further in, the magic of the event hit me. The first time I came to this venue was for a electronoic pop music night. The room was completely transformed. Painted walls were put up to help the visitors escape into a winter wonderland. The room was massive and was actually a giant, empty pool. As I walked around the room, the wave of gingerbread hit me repeatedly!

The collection of houses was massive. It replicated in good detail the city of Bergen from the Bybannen to the red stave church up on the hill. The best part was finding the gingerbread house I made during the ESN event.

There was giant slide for kids and a cafe/bar type thing for adults! Check it out!

Taking the Language Classes at UIB

To be brief, don’t do it. * (Regarding the intensive language course, Norwegian 1 and 2.)

You think it’s going to be a great idea. You’ll be in another country and you figure the full emersion makes it the best time to practice your language skills. While you have casually learned what you know up to this point via Duolingo, you think being in a classroom surrounded by students will help you hold yourself accountable. By default, you’re certain you’ll be encouraged to study more often and memorize all of those vocabulary words. You believe that learning from a professor will somehow transform how you memorize the idiomatic expressions and grammar rules.

What I just described are likely your expectations of what it will be like to take a language course. You know what? You’re probably right if you take Norwegian 01 or 1, both of which are beginning courses. Let me say, I do not think this is the best time to take the intensive language course that I did.

There are several reasons why taking the intensive language course in Norway is a bad idea, why learning a language in beneficial, and alternative methods to learn Norwegian while you are in Norway.

Circumstances

Atmosphere

  • Students come from all over the world with different intentions for attending this particular school. Some students come to focus on studies, while others go on Erasmus just to party. Remember that some universalities in Europe are free so it’s easier to not dedicate themselves to studies. Unless you are clear for yourself why you are in Bergen to begin with, you may find yourself influenced by what others involve themselves in.
  • Traveling while in Norway or throughout Europe takes time. If you weren’t in a class and just casually learning, you could go around

Time Commitment

  • I took the intensive 1 and 2 course, so that means it’s a 30 unit class aka a full schedule aka 8 hours a week. This can be quit challenging if you chose to take an additional-15 unit class like me. Furthermore, many Americans don’t have experience learning a second language since most US schools don’t focus on languages as much as European countries. Therefore, Americans may not know what it takes to learn a language, let alone level 2, intensive Norwegian.
  • I bring up teaching methods because the professors don’t talk about what is needed to master the language well enough to succeed on the exam. I think the professors make some assumptions when hosting these language courses. Norway is an interesting place in that as the country becomes increasingly heterogeneous racially, they encourage people to adopt the language and assimilate. They provide courses so people can learn, but I noticed that the method of teaching is full immersion. From day one, the texts are written in Norwegian. This wasn’t terribly awful for me as I took a course before this, but it is deterring. Small barriers like directions in a language you are just learning can make it challenging to fully understand the information. Unfortunately I left my coursework from home in California, so to best learn the language, I resort to Google translate, my Norwegian-English dictionary from home, and lots of online resources (which I’ll share with you).

Benefits to Language

Although I have just outlined several reasons why I don’t think taking the intensive language course is the best, learning a second (or third, fourth, and fifth language for many Europeans) can be highly beneficial. I have found it to be great for a few reasons:

  • You can better connect with the culture of Norway
  • Build relationships with Norwegians. Many of them appreciate it when you make the effort to learn Norwegian.
  • Increase your skills. Learning a second language makes it easier to learn even more
  • Not taking a formal class gives you more time to take other academic classes more relevant to your interests

Alternatives to a Formal Lecture

You may choose to opt out of the formal language course whether that is due to the fact that there weren’t enough seats available or you relate to what I have said. Regardless of what prevented you from learning the language, there are numerous options to learn the language including:

  • The Bergen Public Library offers a casual space to learn Norwegian through conversation and activities with others
  • Online websites such as Sett i Gang, Pågang, and NTNU Now, all of which are below under Tips.
  • Practice conversations with Norwegian friends. They are just as excited as you are that you are learning the language. Set up a weekly meeting!
  • Tandem Language program offered by UIB where they pair you with a Norwegian student to practice with

Tips to learn a language:

Settigang – Flashcards, grammar, exercises, games

Pågang  – Grammar/Exercises

NTNU Now – Trondheim University grammar practice

*You’re wrong if you take intensive 1 and 2.

** I say all of Europe because did I mention how cheap flights are?!

Getting to Bergen and Fantoft

The purpose of this post was to essentiallly describe with detailed pictures how you reach Fantoft (assuming that is your home) from the airport. However, Stand Heistand, the international student blogger for UIB, has already written a clear post about arrival. Therefore, I will simply tell you about my experience arriving and an alternate transportation option to reach Fantoft.

When I arrived in Bergen, I was incredibly lucky because I already knew Norwegians who lived here. I met them back in Berkeley and have kept in touch with them. My friend Lune described which bus to take to reach the city center and greeted me when the bus arrived.

After getting off of the plane, I already had a good idea of how I would find them. But let me say, I arrived and my phone didn’t work. I failed to get a travel plan with my phone company that would allow me to make calls and have data, etc. I couldn’t connect to the internet and I was kind of freaking out. My first time seriously out of the country and I was already a nervous wreck. I finally figured out how to reach my friend and all was good. I made it and you will too.

I took the bus to the city center where I met Lune. She helped me drag my heavy bags up the hill in the direction of the Student Center and her home. She was awesome because she hosted a party, kind of in my honor, to help me meet more people. Over the next two days, I became more familiar with the city, public transportation, navigating the university, and even began building my community of friends.

After picking up my keys from the Student Center, I was ready to head to Fantoft. As I walked out of Lune’s house with my two suitcases, her roommate asked me where my rain jacket was. He was nervous for me when he realized I didn’t have one at the moment so  he kindly lent me his sister’s jacket.

That soft drizzle turned to a downpour as I began my walk to the bybannen. Walking through Nygårdsparken, my arms started getting tired and I honestly wasn’t sure how I would make the rest of the walk through pouring rain and carrying such heavy bags. As I struggled down a set of stairs in the rain, I was fortunate enough to come across a woman who would end up helping me reach Fantoft. Since she was already walking to bybannen, she carried one of my suitcases and guided the way. She helped me buy a ticket, practice a bit of Norwegian, and lucky for me, find my room in Fantoft since she also lived in this student accomodation. Later into the semester, she even gave me three Norwegian grammar books!!

I am so grateful to have met such a kind, remarkable person here in Bergen. She was my first experience with Norway and the meeting, has been the essence of my time in Bergen.

Useful Website: Norway Railways and Bergen Bystasjonen

Tip: Take the free 1F from the airport to bybannen at the end of the line.

Bergen Lystfest – The Tree Lighting Festival

As I’ve mentioned, Christmas and the holiday season is a big deal here in Norway. The Christmas spirit can be felt everywhere you go. All across the city, trees are draped in lights. From the displays in store windows, to the gingerbread cookies lining the grocery store aisles, the season is in full effect.

The city hosts a lighting of the Christmas tree every year to kick start the Christmas season and this year was no different. Sharing the experience with four of my floor mates made the events incredibly special for me. The night was about learning Norwegian traditions and reminding myself to make intentional choices to give me a more fulfilling experience here.

Let’s just start with how cold it was. It was easily 38 degrees Fahrenheit when I went out to meet Kristin and Angelica at the bybannen. I was incredibly cold to say the least. We took bybannen into the city, but since the festival was in full swing, the line ended earlier than usual, meaning we had to take a short walk to reach the tree. As we walked through the streets and passed the Bergen Storecenter, I could see hundreds of people beginning to converge at the tree located at the head of Lille Lungegaardsvannet. When we got closer, the reflection on the water showed the thousands of twinkling lights wrapped around the trees. We pushed through the crowed to get a front and center view of both the tree and stage.

The evening was full of performances, the tree lighting itself, fireworks, and delicious cookies given to us special by Santa Clause himself. The people who hosted the program had several groups sing Christmas songs for us. There were children choirs and a rapping duo. The mc spoke in Norwegian and although a few songs were in English, many were in Norwegian.

As the performances continued, glow sticks and flames were handed out. The latter was highly unexpected. Imagine a stick (1.5 feet long) wrapped in flammable twine. Surrounded by safety boundaries, some guy uses a blowtorch to light four or five of these on fire at once.  Then, those who crowd the barriers are handed these huge, open flames. It was so cooool. When we got our flame stick things, we returned to our ideal position between the tree and the stage and continued listening to the beautiful songs.

The combination of the wind and open flames made it a little difficult to focus on songs as opposed to my hair burning to a crisp. The possibility of baldness aside, the view of hundred of flickering flames and twinkling lights made the event even more magical.

We began the countdown of the tree lighting as the performances came to an end. Fem, fire, tre, to, null and the tree came to life. The crowed erupted in cheer and the fireworks began. It was a beautiful show. Seeing fireworks as a Christmas tradition felt different than what we experience during the Fourth of July. The closeness that comes with the holiday season was heightened as glowing lights brightened the trees, the crowd, the tree, and even the sky.

To share this night with such remarkable friends meant so much to me. It reminded me how important it is to make an effort to connect with those around you. Meet up with people and let your casual conversations teach you something. Learning about Christmas traditions in our respective countries showed me that although we celebrate a bit differently, the feelings the traditions evoke are the same. As I look back at the magical night, I’m certain I’ll try to incorporate these traditions into my life, including the close friendships.

Application Process

 

The application process for attending universities in Norway is facilitated by Seng in the Sociology office. She is incredibly helpful. She provided a to-do-list that made applying and meeting deadlines much easier. The purpose of this post will be to go over the forms and offices you will need to contact in order to come to Norway.

There aren’t many forms, but what was most challenging about these forms was that each form required signatures from several offices. With that said, I had to email to each office and receive it before sending it off to the next office. Therefore, it’s important to keep deadlines in mind and be sure to start as soon as you know you plan to go to go to Norway.

In preparation for the University of Bergen, I picked up the Independent Study Abroad (ISA) packet and filled out the following forms:

  • Planned Leave of Absence
  • Course Evaluation
  • Consortium Application
  • UDI

Planned Leave of Absence

  • The advisor responsible for this aspect of the application responds quickly.
  • Deadline: Fall – October 15 and Spring – April 15
  • Cost: $70

Course Evaluations

  • This is essentially a summary of the courses you plan to take. It’s fast and easy and should be submitted to the Study Abroad Office.

Consortium Application

  • This is the form you pick up from the Financial Aid advisors in the Study Abroad Office. They will email it to you if you physically cannot go into the office. This was the most bothersome form because it needed signatures from three offices. GET THIS DONE. One page is sent to UIB exchange office to sign and this same form then must be signed by the Sociology advisor. The Sociology advisor signs the other form.

UDI

  • UDI is responsible for issuing visas. There are two parts: online application and a physical appointment at an embassy or business that processes these forms. To set your appointment, you must complete the online application. They essentially only need names of your parents, siblings, addresses, and names of schools, etc. At this point, they don’t ask for scans of passports.
  •  When this online app is submitted, you set an appointment, which could be up to a month away. To this appointment, you will bring several things: your printed online application, colored copies of your passport, passport pictures, admission letter, bank statement, etc. Again, pretty easy. By this point in the process, it’s the end of the semester and you may be putting off the application. Let me say, just fill out the online application. You’ll get an appointment sooner.
  • I was in Washington DC when I completed this part. The appointment dates were lacking so I was able to sign up for an emergency appointment. This just meant that I was leaving the country soon and desperately needed them to review the information. Avoid being in that position.

Tips:

  • Watch for deadlines! I don’t have relationships with the people handling my forms in Norway so you may not have that wiggle room you’ve previously used to finesse you’re way through deadlines.
  • Independent Study Abroad packet can be found at the Study Abroad Office, Admissions (Sproul 103), or you can print it online. The form is updated yearly so be sure you have the updated copy if you find it online.
  • Just finish the online application for UDI. It asks for basic demographic information. You don’t need forms until you walk in for your appointment one month later.

 

 

ESN & SAIH Christmas Parties

The semester is ending quickly, but luckily that means Christmas is coming fast too! I joined two student organizations this semester – ESN and SAIH, both of which have celebrated Christmas and all of our semester with a party.

Each party was full of their own traditions. There were meals with traditional meals, secret santa, and lots of time to bond even more. For ESN secret santa, I got Polish cards and candles shaped like the buildings of Bryggen! I’m so grateful to have met so many wonderful students.

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