Mental health and tourism: When ‘living your best life’ suddenly isn’t

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in five Australians experience mental health problems and 16-24 year olds report such issues more than any other age bracket.

Our understanding of mental health has only increased over the last decade but mental illness prevails as a major issue affecting young people today.

Just as everyone has a physical health to maintain, we all have a mental health that can be just as difficult (if not more so) to sustain. This is often only amplified in times of change, including during travel.

Waking up on a perfect day in Paris, watching the grey streets light up in shiny rain, and the smell of baked goods wafting through the window didn’t stop a bout of severe depression for Alex*.

Unable to get out of bed and completely demotivated, a familiar fogginess and wave of low mood took over.

He knew it would pass but the guilt of feeling this way in Paris and knowing how much money he’d spent on the holiday was debilitating.

He resigned to letting the feeling pass, which ended up taking the whole day. He describes this time period as truly, “unbalanced and unusual”, being on his dream holiday and still feeling unhappy.

Some people aren’t as lucky as Alex, who was taking medication and was able to employ the tools he’d developed with his psychologist.

With young people likely to suffer from mental health issues and travelling considered a rite of passage for many, the lack of discourse around managing depression and anxiety while ‘living your best life’ is alarming.

The nature of travel is unfamiliar. It can be stressful and scary entering a new environment and leaving the comfort of a daily routine, often with very little sleep.

Unsurprisingly, this can trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety for many people who mightn’t have experienced them before, and worsen them for those that already do.

The anticipation and self-imposed perceptions of a holiday can become a heavy burden and manifest a sense of pressure when travellers don’t take stock of their mental health.

Alex says he, “had not planned for his mental illness to play up whilst overseas”.  Despite planning for every perceived worst case scenario from cancelled flights to hospital insurance and vaccinations, he didn’t consider the illness he’d been living with for his entire life.

For travellers, being caught off-guard by mental illness while overseas can be dangerous.

The Australian Government’s Smartraveller has some advice around travelling with mental illness, including making sure necessary medication is labelled and enough to cover the length of the trip, and ensuring travel insurance covers any existing conditions.

But mental illness can be more nuanced, complex and challenging than this, and the ways that young people experience mental health may vary greatly from other adults.

The advice available for people like Alex prior to travelling is lacking.

While the stigma surrounding mental health is being ferociously fought – and there’s an increasingly cultural shift where mental health problems are being rightly put on equal footing as physical health problems – there’s one gap that was blatantly obvious to Alex.

“I knew exactly how to prepare my body for travel, but in no way my mind”, he says.

He hopes to pass on the message of mental health mindfulness while travelling.

There are many support services for young people living with mental illness but there’s little research or advice regarding maintaining mental health while travelling.

This is an issue faced by many young Australians but is by no means a new phenomenon and awareness of the problem has to be the first step.

If this has brought up any issues for you or you are seeking support, please contact Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline 13 11 14 or visit Headspace.

*Editor’s note: name has been changed to protect the identity of the person in this story.

Image by Rachael Sharman