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.

 

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?!

4 Academic Must Do’s While Studying Abroad in Norway

At the moment, it’s 4 am and I have my last exam at 9 am. I can’t sleep because I find myself thinking a great deal about the exam and how well or not I will do. The exam is for the intensive Norwegian language course I took. It’s been fun learning more about the grammar rules, but I still find myself quite anxious for the exam. I even resorted to looking up articles on what to do if you fail a class abroad. I learned about grading systems across countries, internships abroad, and how expensive it is to study in France. The feelings are tied to how students are taught in Norway in terms of often having a single exam at the end of the semester as opposed to numerous assignments during the semester. I’m anxious and can’t sleep so with that, I write this post with the intention of helping you avoid this stress by giving some tips to be successful in your courses and by default, succeed on the final exam.

Go to class

I know this seems like a basic one, but it’s worth mentioning. When you are in Norway, you’re going to want to travel and go places and do things and expose yourself to everything the country has to offer. That can include delayed flights or getting home too late after a Christmas party, both of which may result in you hitting the snooze button. Don’t do it! You’re not here to sleep through your classes. You’re here to learn and to do that, it’s helpful to go to class.

I remember taking Psychology 167: Stigma and Prejudice with Professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. (He is a phenomenal professor so if you can, I highly encourage you take any course with him.) He was often casual about our grades. He told us not to stress because we get the grade we deserve. So if you you’re going to class and showing up and doing your part, you’re going to get the grade you want.  If not, you probably won’t do so well. Remember, it is in these lectures where you are doing the learning. At the end of the semester when you’ve missed a few key lectures, don’t act surprised that you didn’t get that A. Although we have differing learning styles, you have to go to class if you want that A, or whatever grade you define as success.

Do the reading

My courses at Berkeley are predominantly Sociology related as that is my major. This particular discipline is like other social science classes in that there is a lot of reading to do. It’s not uncommon to have 60 pages in a week for one class. The final exams are often rooted in these readings. One of my courses at UIB is Scandinavian Politics and similar to my Sociology courses, there was a good amount of reading. There were articles, books, and sections from journals to review, but it had to be done.

Reading is one of those weird homework assignments where after a long day of classes, you almost feel like you don’t have homework because you don’t have to turn anything in. On some of those rare sunny days in Bergen, I didn’t feel much like reading. In addition, there felt like there were barriers to getting this aspect of the work done. At UCB, we often buy readers where the professor has kindly brought most, if not all, of our readings into one place.

I have yet to be given a reader and I am forced to log onto the online syllabus, click links redirecting me to the UIB library database, connect to the VPN, redirect to the academic journal, (sometimes having to create an account), download the material, and finally, read 40 pages while annotating. Regardless of these bothersome barriers, reading is still important and can play a significant role in your understanding of the course material.

Look to this post, which I will add after my exam, to find tips on how to start strong during your semester abroad.

Meet your teachers

Meeting professors through office hours has become an expected task of being in a class at UCB. The relationship you form can help you later when you want to ask for that strong letter of recommendation and this person you’ve sat with for a few hours over the semester actually knows who you are. Going to office hours is highly encouraged by professors in that they even include their hours on the syllabus.

Based on my experience so far at UIB, office hours are not an institutionalized thing here.  The relationships with professors at UIB seem to be more casual from the start. For example, you call them by their first names. The Canadian on my floor told me about a time at the beginning of the semester where he, a classmate, and the professor went out for a beer. The syllabi didn’t that they should go get a beer and talk. However, my point is that even though there aren’t flashing lights on the syllabi telling you about office hours, it is still important to work to build these relationships with professors. (Note: Informational meetings are another great way to get to know them.)

Figure out your Resources

The last, but probably one of the more important points is to learn what, where, and who your resources are. I will post separately about this because I think it’s such a significant part of your success at Bergen. However, I’ll give you a few general things to think about when you consider how to answer the what, where, and who. The ‘What’ question, and subsequently the remaining questions, can be answered by asking what is important to you as an exchange student, such as class, mental health, community, and social outings.

For class, you’ll need to know what are the exam requirements, what should be your study timeline, where to locate online reading and course material, where are the good libraries, and who will you study for exams with.

To maintain your mental health, you’ll ask what are you doing to maintain your physical and mental health, where is the psychologist’s office, where can you find the contact information, and who is your community network in Bergen.

Developing a community in a new city is an imperative aspect of surviving and thriving in a new place. With that said, consider what do you want your community to look like, where and which organizations can you join to build this network, who can you include in this network who pushes you to be better without compromising your values. These are some of the important questions you will want to ask yourself when defining your resources.

With all of that said and done, don’t feel bogged down by these “administrative tasks”, if that’s what you want to call them. Remember that this is exchange and it can still be a time of growth, change, and exploration. All of which can be found by even doing your readings.

Fast tips:

  • Go to class
  • Do the reading
  • Build relationships with professors
  • Locate your resources