Battling the worst first-world problem: post-Erasmus depression
On June 15, 2014, I boarded a plane at Charles de Gaulle airport heading home to Montreal after six months studying at Sciences Po Paris through the Concordia exchange program. I was numb as I went through customs, loaded up on bottles of Bordeaux at duty-free, and eventually boarded the plane. “It’s not over until I land,” I kept telling myself.
I sat down in my seat, half-listened to the “in case of emergency” spiel the stewardess gave, and started to cry—and I am not a crier. In fact I very rarely emote at all, let alone in public. I continued to cry as I watched Frozen and Her, and made small talk with the very worried and confused gentleman next to me.
I got off the plane, having composed myself sufficiently while I went through baggage claim and customs. Everything felt wrong, disorienting, unreal.
My mother ran to greet me at the arrivals gate, rushing up to me in a Love Actually-esque display of airport emotion. As I hugged her, I started to cry again—and not cute delicate tears, but full-on, snot-running-down-my-face, heaving-and-blubbering crying.
“You realize that most people here think that you’re crying with happiness at seeing your family again,” she whispered in my ear. “They probably think this is touching. They don’t know that you’re dreading being here and would love nothing more than to turn around and get back on that plane.”
My response was something like “nkalhekwvbwaaahhhhaaahhajoewj.”
A few hundred years ago, gout was considered the disease of the privileged. Today, that title goes to post-Erasmus depression syndrome. The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) is a non-profit organization that links students in higher education with international host facilities to study or intern abroad—essentially it’s a network for international exchanges like the ones
offered through Concordia and other schools worldwide. Post-Erasmus depression is a common experience amongst students upon returning from the glorious life of exchange to the grim realities of life back home, and it is certainly not exclusive to the European network (they just came up with the name first). This may just be the quintessential first-world problem, but it isn’t one to take lightly.
Already, the vast majority of college and university students experience some kind of mental illness. A 2013 article in the Globe and Mail breaks down mental health statistics among students, finding that 90 per cent of students felt anxious and “overwhelmed at all they had to do,” while just over 50 per cent relayed feelings of hopelessness, and 63 per cent admitted to being very lonely. Almost 10 per cent had considered suicide in the last year, and 1.3 per cent had attempted it.
“We do see more depression and anxiety than we did a few years ago,” said Dale Robinson, Psychologist and Manager of Counselling and Psychological Services at Concordia.
We can all agree that these statistics are troublesome, though not surprising. University courses are demanding, and it can be difficult to juggle academic responsibilities with working to support yourself, padding your resume with extracurriculars or internships, and navigating the treacherous waters of social interactions in your twenties.
Now, imagine that for a semester—or a year if you’re really lucky—you get to escape all the mundane, mind-numbing stresses of your life. You get on a plane, maybe to somewhere you’ve never been before. As quickly as it takes to get over your jet lag, you’re completely immersed in a new life, meeting new people, seeing new, exciting, beautiful things. Your only responsibility is passing your classes, which are often much less arduous than the ones at home anyways. Weekends are free to travel the world near your host city, or explore your new home, or forge bonds with other students from around the world. You learn about their cultures, teach them about yours, and find out that despite having grown up at opposite ends of the world you have a lot in common. You experience new things together. You breathe lighter with this extreme freedom. You’re living your life entirely for yourself. Everything is exciting and new, and as cheesy as it sounds, it will change you.
Then, in the blink of an eye that also seems like an eternity, you’re gone. Back home, back to where you started. You’ve changed, but nothing else has. Back to your soul-crushing part-time job and mini-dramas with people you feel that you’ve outgrown, and a city that feels a lot smaller than you left it.
“Change is always stressor, and anyone who has vulnerabilities of any kind is going to feel that impact much more,” said Robinson. “[Psychologist Abraham] Maslow talked about the hierarchy of needs; everything is built around the basic structure of where you live and what’s around you. When you change that, it changes everything else.”
A recurring theme amongst students who experience depression upon coming home from exchange is the reported feeling of being stifled by the lack of freedom and new experiences once you return.
“The word I keep using when people ask me about being back is ‘bittersweet.’ Yeah it’s great to see everyone but I miss the possibilities being on exchange offered,” said Matthew*, a Concordia student who recently returned from studying abroad in Paris in the fall semester. “Five months flies by and most is the same back at home. I know I constantly feel wanderlust, so being back just means I can no longer hop a budget flight under $100 and discover a completely new place in a weekend. Instead my option is $250 or more to go to Toronto.”
Robinson explains that readjusting to a new environment, especially after such a huge change as going abroad, can be difficult for many people.
“We adjust and respond to our environment, we can’t expect to be picked up and dropped off somewhere and be exactly the same,” she said. “For example, if the student went away and they felt more autonomous, were able to explore and experiment with their own identity, and then going back home you’re one of the family again, one of the kids again, you lose that autonomy.”
It is this kind of shift, which many students feel to be regressive, that has the potential to become a stressor that causes depression.
“Leaving for an entire year to Australia kind of made me want to start over entirely from scratch,” said Thierry Tardif, another Concordia student who spent a year studying abroad in Sydney, Australia. “I had a job, I paid my rent, my phone, my entire life over there was my own and I didn’t feel the need to meet anyone’s demands or my parents’ needs…I was my own person.”
For students battling with readjusting to life after exchange, Concordia International offers their services.
Sometimes simply sitting down and speaking with somebody about your experience abroad can be helpful, whether that’s in the form of mentoring a student thinking of going on exchange in the future, or sitting down with one of the International Liaison Officers, explains Pauliina Rouleau, International Liaison Officer for Europe, Middle East, and Africa at Concordia International.
“Staying active definitely helps readjusting to being home, and discussing with other people who have gone on exchange as they’ll be able to most likely relate to the feelings you’re having,” she said. “Personally I encourage returning students who are missing the international environment to get involved with CISA [Concordia International Student Association] as their goal is to bring students together in a warm and friendly environment.”
Robinson agrees that the best way to get over the readjustment hump is to stay active, and evaluate yourself and your goals on a new level.
“I’d encourage students to not be afraid of what they’re feeling, and to use that as an opportunity to ask themselves ‘what do I need right now?’,” said Robinson.
And, if your depression persists, you can always make an appointment with a psychologist at Concordia’s Counselling and Development department. This semester, they are launching a workshop entitled “Four Ways to Feel Better,” which will be held four times per semester starting Jan. 23.
In any case, going abroad is an incredible opportunity. It allows you to discover yourself as well as the world around you in unimaginable ways. It’s a dream life, to be sure, but it can also be a launching pad for future travels.
“Honestly nothing helped me until I made plans to go back,” said Jessica Prupas, a McGill student who studied abroad in Leeds, United Kingdom two years ago. She is now looking forward to attending grad school in London next year.
“All in all my mind is made up,” said Matthew. “I will not be staying in Montreal or Canada for very much longer.”