Here's a scary statistic for you:
Around 450 million people currently suffer from [mental illness], placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.
Can we please just take a moment to let that sink in? 450 MILLION people.
The WHO also reports that 'one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives'. Which means that, chances are, one out of the four people you see at the airport, or hanging out at the backpackers, or rocking out at a music festival will be experiencing some form of mental illness.
And I used to be one of them.
For eight long years, I suffered from depression and anxiety and it cost me dearly. Jobs, opportunities, friends...even my marriage. So when I decided to go travelling solo around Europe in 2012, my biggest fear wasn't getting stranded or being mugged - it was how I would be able to travel when I was having constant, crippling panic attacks.
After a 6-hour meltdown whilst flying from Sydney to Jakarta (trust me, nothing sucks more than losing your shit whilst flying at 30,000ft), I was thought the journey was going to be over before it started. But I dug deep, continued to transit across three more countries, and two days later found myself in Germany.
I never had another panic attack whilst travelling again.
Now, I'm not a doctor and I don't think that all of life's problems can be solved with a pill - let's just make that clear. But there are certain precautions that you can take to ensure that you can still travel - and love every moment - even when suffering from mental illness.
Is it harder? Definitely. Scarier? Hell yes. But is it worth it? You better believe it.
Here's how I've learnt to travel like a rockstar whilst carrying some extra baggage...and I ain't talking about my luggage:
1. Talk to your doctor. Before I leave home I always consult with my healthcare professional to make sure I've got everything I need: prescriptions, dosages, and emergency contact details. Even now, after so many years and countries travelled, I always pack an emergency stash of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication just in case. I may not use them, but at least I know they are there if I need them.
2. Pack your coping strategies. Breathing techniques. Meditation. Journalling. Whatever works for you, whatever pulls you out of those deeply scary moments when your mind is taking over your body; remember to use them if the situation calls for it. Just because you're going overseas, doesn't mean you have to be some big, brave, intrepid traveller who loses all sense of routine straight away.
3. Something old, something new, something familiar for when you're blue. Homesickness can be a motherf*cker for even the most mentally strong of travellers. I recommend taking something comforting to remind you of home or something that you associate with happiness. When you feel those pangs of anxiety starting to kick in, just cuddle up and let your senses enjoy the comfort of something familiar.
4. Get your paperwork sorted. I never leave home without a letter from my doctor clearly stating my pre-existing medical conditions and what medication I am authorised to travel with. Even though I no longer have active symptoms or occurrences of depression or anxiety, I still take precautions to ensure that, if they were to return whilst I was abroad, I could go to a health professional to get the help I need with valid medical evidence.
5. Monitor your intake. Travelling can play havoc on the body and mind: late nights, early mornings, little sleep, long hours spent in transit, questionable food choices, irregular exercise, alcohol, partying, sex. Travelling is rarely a relaxing, zen-like experience and keeping the body/mind balance can be difficult.
Watch your alcohol consumption; don't mix meds and booze (the outcome is rarely good); try to eat healthy, vitamin-rich whole food options when available, and get some sleep. Keep track of your medication intake and maintain routine - don't suddenly stop taking them or forget your dosage and double up. You may have to do a little more 'behind the scenes' work than other travellers, but your mind will thank you for it in the long run.
6. Get outside your comfort zone. This is possibly the scariest, but most rewarding part of travelling with a pre-existing mental condition. A big part of having anxiety is fear, and what better way to overcome that by facing it front on? I'm not saying you have to go skydiving or get a face tattoo, but challenge yourself to break free of the restrictions of your mind and just have a go. Meet new people, try new things, say 'YES' to adventures. You'll find that it gets easier the more you do it.
7. It's okay to share. It is perfectly acceptable to tell people about your condition, if you choose to do so. Having a travel buddy that knows the basics of your mental health status and what to do in an emergency situation is not only okay, but also sensible. You don't have to tell everyone but confiding in a trusted person will give you peace of mind and (hopefully) a helping hand if shit gets gnarly.
8. Believe in yourself. Above all else, this is the key to successfully travelling with mental illness. At the end of the day, you can pack as much as you want, be insured up to the eyeballs and plan for anything, but if you haven't got the mind power to believe in yourself, you're screwed. Know that you can do this, no matter what your head or other people may say. You may leave home a shaking, trembling, pill-popping, knee-knocking mess, but I guarantee that you won't come back the same.
Is travelling a miracle cure? Hell no. But is it a powerful tool that could be the key to your recovery? I believe so. I know it's what saved me.