Travelling with a medical condition can throw up all sorts of challenges. But when you’re living with mental illness, those challenges are multiplied by an issue that continues to dog our entire approach to mental health in general – a reluctance to talk openly about it, which creates barriers for people in getting the help and support they need.
Mental illness ranks as the biggest single cause of disability in the UK. One in four adults experience a diagnosable mental health problem every single year, and the estimated cost to the economy in terms of treatment, support, days off work etc. is £105 billion. By any reckoning, that makes it a huge issue.
Mental illness of course comes in a very wide range of different forms, and affects people’s lives in many different ways. It impacts our relationships, our ability to work, our ability to do everyday straightforward things that people otherwise take for granted. Including travelling and going on holiday.
It’s widely accepted that travel is ‘good’ for our mental well-being. We all need downtime, we all need opportunities to relax and enjoy ourselves. But there’s also a side to travel that can be particularly difficult if your mental health is not in the best place. Travel can be tiring and stressful, which can easily trigger symptoms. Depending on the specific condition you have, you might struggle to cope with changes to routine, or planning, or dealing with new people in unfamiliar circumstances.
All of this is well recognised by experts in the field. Yet compared to other medical conditions, advice on travelling with a mental illness is noticeably harder to find. If you suffer from cardiovascular disease, or Type 2 diabetes, or even cancer, help is readily available. No doubt it comes down to that same old problem. We’re still not great at talking enough about this kind of thing.
So without further ado, here’s to breaking the stigma. Here’s the most important advice you need about travelling with a mental health problem.
Don’t ignore it
If you have a diagnosed mental health condition, then you should 100% build that into your planning the way you would with any other type of condition. Don’t fall into the trap of believing it’s somehow less important, or less relevant to travelling.
Different types of mental illness, be it depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia or anything else, will pose different types of risk when it comes to travel. It’s important to do your research, understand what those risks are, and plan to incorporate the best measures to manage your condition into your travel plans.
Speak with your doctor
Whatever type of medical condition you have – whether it’s physical or mental, whether it’s a long-term issue or you’re recovering from a specific illness or incident – this piece of advice is universal. More than anyone else in the world, your doctor is best placed to give you advice on how to manage your condition when you travel, what the risks are etc.
And most crucially of all, they are the person with the expertise to tell you whether they think you are well enough to go or not.
With regards to mental health, there’s an extra bit to add to this. Even if you have never had a diagnosis of mental illness in your life, if you have any doubts whatsoever in the lead up to planning a holiday, go see your doctor. Perhaps you’ve been having more extreme mood swings than normal, or feeling particularly down or anxious, or struggling to sleep at night. Perhaps you’re struggling to cope with the planning of the trip itself.
Like we say above, don’t ignore it. Speak with your doctor and raise your concerns. If there is something going on, it’s better to find out before you go and get the help and support you need than experience a crisis in an unfamiliar country thousands of miles from home.
Get the right travel insurance
Travel insurance is about a lot more than covering you for flight cancellations and lost luggage. In fact, travel insurance companies will pay out many, many times more for medical emergencies than they will for anything else. That’s just a reflection of the fact that medical care is expensive for tourists and foreign visitors in practically all countries.
If you’re thinking to yourself, but a mental health problem is unlikely to lead to a medical emergency – well, in fact the exact opposite is true. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental health issues are among the leading causes of ill health among travellers, and psychiatric emergency is up there with cardiovascular disease and accidental injury as one of the most common medical reasons for air evacuation. Without travel insurance, the cost of having to be airlifted to hospital in another country would bankrupt most people.
If you have had a diagnosis for mental illness in the past two years, regardless of whether or not you are currently undergoing any active treatment for it, you must declare it when you buy travel insurance. As with any other condition, you will need a special policy that covers you for treatment related to your issue. Travel insurance for pre-existing medical conditions can be bought from specialist providers.
Plan ahead for medications
Taking medications for any type of medical condition with you on holiday requires a degree of forward planning. For a start, you need to make sure that you have enough with you to last the trip, plus some spare in case anything gets misplaced. This is another reason why it is important to consult with your doctor, to get a prescription in plenty of time.
It’s also advisable to get a note from your doctor explaining what the medication you are carrying is and why you need it. This is to avoid running into potential problems with local authorities questioning what the drugs you are carrying are, and is especially important with certain categories of medication used to treat mental illnesses.
Depending on where you are travelling, there may be legal restrictions on certain psychotropic substances used to treat mental illness, including antidepressants, antipsychotics and tranquillisers. It is essential that you can provide authoritative evidence of why you need to carry such medications, otherwise you could find yourself in trouble with the law.
Take steps to protect yourself
Carrying the right medications with you, and in sufficient quantities, is part and parcel of what is ultimately the most important thing about travelling with a medical condition – taking good care of yourself.
Travelling without adequate medication could mean putting yourself in significant danger. If your mental well-being starts to deteriorate, there’s a high likelihood that you could start behaving erratically, perhaps even in ways that others perceive as threatening or aggressive. It’s far from uncommon for people going through a crisis episode to end up in trouble with the law. This in itself will only make matters worse, especially if there is a language barrier and/or you are not in a position to explain what is happening to you.
Stress and anxiety can also easily trigger a rapid deterioration in your mental health when you travel. Again, it’s important to talk to your doctor to get advice on coping mechanisms. Also, doing plenty of research about your trip can make a big difference to keeping feelings of anxiety under control. The more prepared you feel and the more you know what to expect, the easier it will be to stay calm in all situations.