Could/should a severely depressed person volunteer abroad?
September 20, 2009 12:56 PM   Subscribe

I asked This question a couple of months ago. Since then I've gone through one of the worst periods of depression of my life. I'm seeing a therapist and taking anti-depressants but they're not really helping. I'm depressed about my complete lack of meaningful relationships and experiences and the depression has made me more isolated and unmotivated than ever. I feel like I need to do something drastic to force myself to get out of my head and start living my life. I want to be in a situation where I have no choice but to work hard and interact with people. Volunteering abroad appeals to me a great deal but I have no real skills and I'm guessing my mental health problems would make it hard to get a placement. Would volunteering abroad be possible or advisable and is there anything else I could do?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think the question to ask would be whether or not it would be good for people who need help to have you there. If you go abroad and your problems get worse, how would you be impacting the charity or organization that had to depend on you.

You could get a pet and go on dogwalks and stuff like that, or join some kind of special club for owners of certain breeds. But I don't advise you going abroad for an extended period of time if you're still trying to get your depression under control.
posted by anniecat at 1:02 PM on September 20, 2009

The question I'd ask myself is if cutting myself off from my support system (family) would help with the depression or put me into a situation where I'd be more at-risk. While the concept of change, especially drastic change, can be appealing when depressed, the old adage holds true that no matter where you go, there you are.
posted by xingcat at 1:06 PM on September 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

It's probably not a good idea to go abroad and put yourself in a completely unfamiliar and unpredictable situation when you're still in the process of dealing with your depression. But that doesn't mean you can't take baby steps toward that goal. Try to find some volunteer opportunities locally and see how you do, then branch out from there. Good luck and best wishes.
posted by amyms at 1:08 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm depressed about my complete lack of meaningful relationships and experiences and the depression has made me more isolated and unmotivated than ever. I feel like I need to do something drastic to force myself to get out of my head and start living my life.

You're in your early twenties, this is normal - I know that this is an answer that you keep getting, but it's entirely relevant. It's an incredibly tough age for some people; you feel the need to get going, but have absolutely no idea how to do it. Why don't you look into some of the volunteering abroad options before you assume that you wouldn't be qualified - a LOT of teens/early 20's people have problems with depression, and I know that for many programs, this is not a big issue as long as you get a note from your doctor. In the meantime, can you volunteer in your local area? Are you still in school?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:13 PM on September 20, 2009

Depression is not caused by external factors (although it can certainly be triggered by them). Moving overseas isn't going to solve anything. You'll most likely end up depressed overseas.

Doesn't that sound like fun?
posted by bpm140 at 1:15 PM on September 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

12 or 14 years ago, I was very depressed and had the idea that maybe things would be better if I went abroad for awhile. So I signed up for the study abroad program and took a couple of six-week courses in Mexico. It was no help whatsoever for the depression.

It had its pluses (impressive ruins, countless photo subjects, new beers, new foods) and just as many minuses (unfamiliar environment, constant expense, spotty costly communication, an overwhelming sense of isolation).

In short, I don't know what I'd recommend to treat your depression, but going abroad would not be it.
posted by johnofjack at 1:18 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Although depression may or may not be "caused" by external factors, it can certainly be affected by them (antidepressants being one example, exercise being another).

You may be right that working hard and putting energy into something outside of yourself would be helpful.

The idea of going abroad sounds potentially risky, although it could be great. Just one anecdote - my friend's malaria medication made her manic and paranoid when she was in India, and it was pure hell for her - she had to come home and it took her a long time to get better. Think about whether your mental state could be worsened by things that might go wrong abroad.

I see no reason why you could not find such an experience closer to home. For example, I work at a school in a low-income neighborhood and I know we'd be delighted to have a dedicated volunteer who could offer up significant chunks of their time - the only real qualification is that you be able to read and do math at a sixth-grade level. Maybe ask the mods to post where you live so that fellow mefites can offer you location-specific suggestions.
posted by mai at 1:26 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why not volunteer right where you are? I think feeling like you're making a positive difference in other peoples' lives can be a great way to get out of your head. I guarantee that, wherever you live, there's an organization nearby that could use you.
posted by dr. boludo at 1:26 PM on September 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

Get a job, any job. You might think you're too sick to get a job but you're not. Get yourself up every morning and go. Volunteer or not.

Check out Americorps, they might have a position for someone with your experience/skills.

Get a job! It will help so much.
posted by kathrineg at 1:31 PM on September 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

Oh, and don't limit yourself to helping people--it doesn't have to be a perfect job, just any job where you have to be at the same place around the same people nearly every day.
posted by kathrineg at 1:32 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm depressed about my complete lack of meaningful relationships and experiences

This is a perception that is also caused by depression. Everyone who's suffered from depression has also thought that their experiences and relationships were shallow and meaningless. Thought patterns like "My friend called and asked me to a movie but I said no because they're just doing it because they feel sorry for me," are a really heinous part of the disease.

Going abroad will almost certainly not help. I was in school fulltime and was sorta fluent in the language when I went abroad in college but the feeling of isolation could still be very difficult, and I wasn't depressed.

How long have you been on your meds? How often do you see your therapist? Meds don't always kick in right away; you may not be on one that's working for you. Talk to your therapist and your prescribing doc (if they're different people) about this. If your therapist is only someone you go to see infrequently for your prescription, then you may need to start weekly-ish talk therapy (or similar) as well.

If you feel you need a kickstart and a reason to go out and do XYZ, there are tons of volunteer opportunities here at home (wherever home is for you), and you won't need to leave what support system you have, or deal with running out of meds/changing your prescription in a foreign country. Good luck.
posted by rtha at 1:34 PM on September 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

The idea of doing something "drastic" is sort of like an overweight person going on an unsustainable crash diet to lose weight. It may have some short term benefits, but usually won't hold up for the long term. The real goal should be moving toward a normal, healthy diet.

In your situation, my gut says that even if you have a positive experience volunteering abroad, it will not necessarily help you very much when you return home. The likeliest result would be that you slip back into the same pattern. After all, when you get home, any relationships you've built overseas are now out of reach. The simplest thing to do will be to plop in front of the computer or TV.

I think it would be better if you put that kind of energy into developing relationships with people that will be part of your day-to-day life at home, which have the potential for building a long term circle of friends. Not that volunteer work is a bad way to go about it; but there ought to be places to volunteer close to home, too.
posted by knave at 1:35 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Maybe instead of going to a different country, you could stay here but in a totally different environment? Full of fresh air, outdoor exercise every single day, free healthy food (lots of fresh fruits and fresh veggies), learning how to nurture something and do something meaningful...? Something to break your cycle and get you out, busy doing stuff? And maybe meeting other volunteers?

If so, I think WWOOF might be right up your alley. You volunteer as a farm worker on an organic farm -- usually smaller farms, run by families, not huge conglomerates -- and learn about and help implement sustainable agriculture and permaculture. Don't worry if you don't know anything about organic farming or even basic plants; that's what they teach you! In exchange, you get a free place to stay and usually free food -- which you may have grown and harvested yourself that day!

I don't know where you live, but I would try something in a different state/province from where you are, maybe with a different terrain or climate. Here's the link for the continental US. The Hawaii WWOOF program looks pretty cool, and I think it would be harder to be depressed on an island paradise, although airplane fare to get there and back might be expensive.

Don't pick a location too far out in the sticks in case your depression rears up and you need medical help or need to fly home. Luckily, there are actually lots of opportunities in pretty close to cities. Also, pick one of the locations where they host lots of volunteers; you probably don't want to be the only one there, or one of two.

Best of luck to you! And congrats on recognizing your depression and wanting to fix it; acknowledgment of a problem and wanting to fix a problem are legitimate kinds of progress in themselves, so you deserve some kudos for that alone.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:36 PM on September 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

I've never volunteered, so I don't know how that is, but I have been depressed!

When I was super lonely, I went to Denmark for ten days. Not volunteering - just as a holiday. I went all by myself.

You'd think that being alone in a strange country would make everything worse, and maybe it will for you. But it turned out what I really needed was time by myself and to be validated by a country full of people who had no preconceptions about me. It was something about the challenge of looking after myself in terms of finding food, finding my way to museums, making myself understood etc ec which meant basically I wasn't able to think about how sad and useless I was, because I was too busy being active and doing fun things. YMMV, obvs - but Philip Larkin agrees with me ("Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home / Strangeness made sense." from 'The Importance of Elsewhere').

Now, I'm in the UK so Denmark was just a four hour flight away - I don't know where you are or what your equivalent would be. Just something to bear in mind!
posted by citands at 1:42 PM on September 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

Your desire for a major change may be a sign that your energy levels are coming back up and the intense physical part of the depression is lessening. This is basically a good thing, but also a critical point. You still feel, and think, terrible, but you may have enough energy to hurt yourself.

Overseas volunteering is probably not a good plan right now, but certainly a possible goal. If there's a Habitat for Humanity near you, help build some houses, or walk dogs at an animal shelter. Exercise is a good way to use that physical energy to reduce the mental part of the depression. I've battled depression and I recognize where you are. It gets better, and getting better may be closer than you realize.
posted by theora55 at 1:42 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Firstly, I'm sorry to hear that things haven't improved for you. Depression sucks, and I hope you are able to take control of the situation.

Are you not working? If so, follow katherineg's advice and get a job. Feeling of use is pretty important, and having a job will make you feel like you are doing something - maybe not much, but at least something. Better still if it's a job that requires you to interact with your coworkers.

Don't sweat the relationship thing. You are not abnormal, and you are still young. For now, try to envision a happier version of yourself. A future, single self. Try to become that. Make becoming that happy and single version of you be your personal goal. Because you have to love yourself if you want to be loved by another.
posted by molecicco at 1:44 PM on September 20, 2009

Depression is not caused by external factors (although it can certainly be triggered by them). Moving overseas isn't going to solve anything. You'll most likely end up depressed overseas.

I don't know where this idea came from, but yes, depression CAN be caused by external factors. Situations can arise in our lives which make us depressed (feeling trapped by family/societal issues, death in the family, etc.) The "geographical cure" can and does work - I've used it myself in my 20's and it can be a real tonic. Sometimes we need to get the heck out of Dodge in order to actually get a handle on who we are. The worst thing that could possibly happen is the OP goes somewhere and doesn't enjoy it - the best - is that he gets away from all of his perceived "failures" and realizes that the world's a much bigger place than he ever imagined and his opportunities are limitless. After reading the initial question, I have to wonder what type of pressures he's been under to judge himself so harshly for not being a success in his early teens. This could be just what he needs.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:47 PM on September 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

I feel like I should start with the caveat that the effects of depression vary significantly from person to person, and that I suspect that I was never as depressed as you are now.

However, I did volunteer in West Africa while I was suffering from depression and it actually helped me a lot. It wasn't a miracle cure by any means, but the change of scenery, the very limited amount of "alone time," and the (sometimes forced) interaction with other people definitely got me out of my head. I didn't have any real skills, and only a slight idea of what I wanted to do with my life, but I found that my volunteer experience actually helped me gain some skills and direction.

The program was only about a month and a half long, but I managed to find a job a year later in the same country doing similar work.

If you decide to go abroad, make sure that you find a program that is very structured and very short. I found my initial program through my university, but I've seen other programs that take just about anyone (assuming they can pay their way), and last 3-6 weeks. "Mission trips" affiliated with religious groups might also be something to look into. Paid programs and mission trips have their drawbacks, but they (1) will handle all of the logistics of travel/volunteering, (2) tend to be quite structured, and (3) will provide you with at least a basic support system.

Furthermore, I would recommend that you find a program that lasts 3 weeks or less. That way, if your depression gets worse you'll only have to suffer through a few weeks. You can always go back for a longer period if you really enjoy it (like I did).

Also, have you considered looking into domestic volunteering programs? They might provide you with the change of scenery, etc. that you're looking for without exposing you to the potential stresses of international travel and volunteering.

Lastly, before you do anything, make sure you talk to your therapist. S/he will be able to advise you on the feasibility of your intended program, and be able to provide you with strategies to cope with the experience.
posted by cimton at 1:48 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

You feel alone, but you're so, so not. So many of us have been there, and our hearts ache to read of you being there now. But please have hope, you've already done the hardest part, which is to take action to help fix things. These years are a really small slice of your adulthood, and having been through them has earned you a depth and empathy you couldn't have learned otherwise.

So, what do you love? I've met my dearest friends through shared interests. In my case, art stuff and animal stuff. What's going on around you locally? My husband became a volunteer for a historic site and met some cool people through that. Now he's in the freemasons and it's secret handshakes all over the damn place. Look on craigslist for local events that might be interesting, and volunteer for them. How about the historic society? What's cool in your neighborhood? A friend of mine volunteers at sci fi cons and has all kind of cool experiences. Other friends volunteer for local wildlife sanctuaries - the kind of nonprofit thingies that have crippled owls and do presentations at schools with them. You can meet the most interesting people over an afternoon of chopping up veggies for three-legged tortoises.

Adventures are waiting for you, they don't have to be far away. There's so many neat things to learn. Homebrewing, beekeeping, metal detecting, fixing bikes, writing short stories. What are you good at? Can you teach it to others? Can you teach them how to love it, too? That's where relationships come from, in my experience - having neat stuff to do together.
posted by Lou Stuells at 1:57 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Follow-up from the OP "I'm at University in Bath, England."
posted by jessamyn at 2:13 PM on September 20, 2009

Jesus, I wouldn't do this. Putting myself in new, unfamiliar places seriously throws me for a loop for the first couple weeks. I'm generally a pretty stable place, but I've freaked out pretty hard the first week of being in a significantly different place without my usual support. This just seems like a bad idea..

Can you change your circumstances less drastically? Move to a new city that's not too far away? Move in with a bunch of new roommates?
posted by devilsbrigade at 2:37 PM on September 20, 2009

That should be, generally a pretty stable person, of course... though clearly not a careful person.
posted by devilsbrigade at 2:38 PM on September 20, 2009

The worst thing that could possibly happen is the OP goes somewhere and doesn't enjoy it...

No, really, that is not the worst that could happen. Being depressed doesn't just mean "not enjoying things;" a really acute depressive episode can mean being unable to get out of the house (and sometimes even out of bed) for days, or to accomplish small life tasks like showering or making/buying a meal. This is bad enough when you are in a city where you have a support system, where you have financial resources, where you are a permanent legal resident of the country (and your presence there/health insurance/etc. don't rely on working a specific job or attending classes at a specific university). In a city where you know no one, in a country where your visa depends on various conditions you may not be able to fulfill if you're in the middle of a really bad depressive episode, things can get worse. The isolation and culture shock that affect even healthy people, running out of money, legal issues or expulsion from the country due to overstaying your visa or screwing up some bureaucratic detail you were too depressed to deal with, difficulty navigating/paying for treatment in another country, not to mention possible increased risk for suicide attempts or self-harm...

I totally sympathize with the desire to just get out of your unhappy situation. However, you should not depend on a move abroad to solve your depression, and such a move will introduce a lot of new stressors that might cause your depression to grow worse.

Like other people, I'd suggest a few things:

-Look for things you can do in your area (or at least in cities that are not too far from home.) There are still opportunities where you can make a difference, and programs that will require a lot of your time and energy. You might have to fight harder not to remain in your current rut, but you'll also avoid all the extra risks of moving overseas.

-Shake up your living situation at home. If you live alone, get housemates. If you live out of the city, move closer (if you can afford it) so that the activation energy for getting out of the house is lower and metting new friends or doing things with current friends becomes easier. If you spend most nights watching TV, sell the TV and sign up for some classes or yeah, find a place to volunteer. Shaking up your life a little can help you figure out how much of your depression is caused or exacerbated by your current lifestyle, job, etc.

-Consider a short, highly structured program or a short vacation somewhere else. You'll get your much-needed change of scene, but without the additional stresses and risks that make actually moving abroad so hard. A structured program or tour gives you less time to feel isolated and mope, and will force you to interact with people. Most importantly, perhaps, even if things go badly and you get more depressed, you'll be back home soon and able to get treatment and support from your friends and family.
posted by ubersturm at 2:41 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Going abroad sounds a little high-pressure, but volunteering is definitely great for dealing with depression. For me, it was an animal shelter and a library - things that didn't require a lot of skill or involve a lot of stress, but allowed me to come home at the end of the day feeling like I'd done something useful. The shelter in particular was good because you can't help but be cheered up by adorable puppies and kittens* and animals have no idea how much of a fuck-up you are and will love you anyway.

* Caveat: I worked at a no-kill shelter - I imagine that it would be a slightly less cheery experience if you knew that the animals might be put to sleep.
** Not that you're a fuck-up, just that I certainly felt like one at the time. Someone mentioned above that depression can make you doubt the motives of even your friends (and I certainly found this to be the case), but with animals you don't even have to worry that they're feeling sorry for you. It's pretty refreshing.
posted by naoko at 2:59 PM on September 20, 2009

Bath university has a student volunteer centre - conservation, mentoring etc. Worth looking at. I think given the social anxiety you mention in your other post volunteering abroad would be really hard for you. I'm sorry you are feeling so sad - sounds like you've done well to keep up with your studies and stay on the course. MeMail me if you'd like to talk.
posted by paduasoy at 3:18 PM on September 20, 2009

Oh wow! At uni? This must be really tough.

My comment before about holidays is even more pertinent - I took that trip between the second and third years at my (UK) uni.

What I really wish I'd done, however, is deferred the second and/or third years of uni. I was really low and didn't make the best of it - my grades were ok but my relationships suffered; making me feel isolated; making me more depressed.

I know it will feel like a massive, terrible step - but have you spoken to a uni counseller about deferring? It can be done and while it might be just as scary (and you need to fill those years with *something* otherwise you'll just feel worse), it might be beneficial to have a break from the system for a bit. Don't feel like this is letting people down (and it totally isn't). Screw people. You are the important one.

Sometimes with depression you need to play the long game. This sounds glib coming from someone who's currently ok - but it really is a waste of energy to struggle on and find quick-fixes (ie a summer volunteering) when there might be a more circular route (defer the next year, go and work as a glass collector or whatever and meet some new people who aren't in the 'uni uni uni' headspace).

I'm probably projecting. Apologies in advance if so.
posted by citands at 3:43 PM on September 20, 2009

While I highly recommend time and experiences abroad, I do not recommend you go now. Your depression WILL follow you there, which can be even more depressing ("even when I'm in a different country, helping people, I'm still depressed") and that'll create a cycle.

The volunteering idea is a rather good one. The best way to get out of your head is to, well, get out of your head. Start spending time helping others, it'll make you feel useful/see that your life is meaningful. And you can do it nearby where you still have the connection with your family.

Don't take any gigantic leaps until you can at least semi-handle them. Baby steps first. Spend some time volunteering near your home and when you're back on your feet and feel functional without dreading leaving the house or talking to random people, then go abroad - you'll have an amazing experience!
posted by Neekee at 4:07 PM on September 20, 2009

anonymous, I have just discovered something very important. I mentioned to my GP doctor that I wanted to begin taking B12 supplements. She ordered a lab test for B12 and the result was very low. I hope you will have your B12 levels checked too. B12 is cheap and everyone needs it in order to feel well. A deficiency can cause major problems (like fatigue and depression).
posted by naplesyellow at 4:46 PM on September 20, 2009

My therapist has told me many times that she is not fond of geographical solutions, and I agree with her. Who you are and what your problems are follow you wherever you go. I think the impulse to get outside yourself and help others, however, is an excellent one. Rather than leaving what you've established thus far, why not look for local volunteer opportunities? It might lack the excitement and adventure that going abroad conjures up, but it will help you connect with others and feel more purposeful. Lastly, treating depression can take a long time, so please be patient and give yourself a chance to truly find your footing before shaking up your entire world. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 5:03 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Going abroad for an extended period (longer than a month) is probably not a good idea right now - that's when things really sink in for most people, and when the novelty wears off and the isolation kicks in. I've moved overseas for a year or longer a couple of times, and you really shouldn't underestimate how tough that is to deal with.

Having said that, a shorter time abroad in a very structured environment (whether volunteer or vacation) does help with some people, and did with me. No, it is not going to 'cure' your depression, and your life will still be your life when you get back. But for me, it just gave me a bit of space to start to figure out what was really going on, and to realize what I needed to do to start getting things back on track - but it was still a lot of really hard work when I did get home. But it helped me remember what I could be when I wasn't stuck in a dark place. Having said that, there were some external factors in my depression that I could change when I got home - yeah, yeah, I know it's all about how I deal with things, but I realized that I was dealing with things that I shouldn't have had to deal with, including an intolerable work environment.

But (emphasizing), leaving everything you know for a longer period is not going to solve anything - it's harder than you think.
posted by scrute at 5:16 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

*If* you are the sort of person who would get more freaked out by travelling, you'd probably already know that, and be going 'you couldn't pay me to go overseas right now'.

The fact that part of you desperately wants a change, could mean... part of you desperately wants a change?
And, you don't have to move location for that, but, it's true, it IS a hell of a lot easier. No preconceptions from others, lots of small solvable problems to sort out, and people are much happier to make friends with someone 'new to town' and introduce them to their friends network, if you make the effort to put yourself out there for the first few months.
If nothing else, there's just a sense of freedom, and space, that helps many people.

And yep, I'm chiming in to say the 'location' cure has been one of the most effective responses to depression I've seen amongst people I know.
(To the extent that I did my damndest to help one friend move BACK out of home, as he'd clearly achieved a social network, lifestyle, and level of happiness he'd never had at home once he moved away, then sunk into depression again when he needed to move back to the same town).

God I hate the 'you can't run away from your problems' fallacy - there's a reason geeks, goths & gays tend to move out of their small hometowns when they grow up.
And it's not because of who they are, it's because of who everyone else is - ie not geeks, not gays, not goth, and therefore they can usually find a more compatible social niche if they MOVE!
Being new to a town gives you a lot more social mobility, and people are a lot friendlier. You really can make a new start.

Only recommended if this impulse is coming from WITHIN though. I wouldn't recommend it to someone who didn't already want to.

Finally - hell yeah. Travel, go WWOOFing, go on a 10 day meditation retreat, or an 'up to 3 month' volunteering stint, and kick ass!
posted by Elysum at 11:22 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with folks who worried about you going abroad because it would cut you off from the support system you do have now. And I agree with the person who suggested getting a job here instead. An Americorps job would be hard, absorbing, meaningful - maybe the shake up and perspective you need? It might help expand your social circle as well. I also think getting roommates would be valuable and would force you to practice being social. It would also give ensure that someone is checking in on you regularly, which is important when you're depressed.

On that note, I'm wondering if you'd consider attending a group for people who share some of the depression you're feeling. Your isolation combined with depression worries me because that combination can be dangerous.

My last idea is to find an exercise buddy on craigslit or join an exercise class. But I like the idea of a "buddy" because then you're forced to show up for that other person (and of course for you). Anyway, regular exercise, combined with a social environment, certainly isn't a cure-all, but could help with some of the low-motivation feeling.
posted by serazin at 11:47 PM on September 20, 2009

I agree that a long abroad experience is a bad idea for you right now. Still, if you do, please go somewhere where you have full language fluency. Struggling to keep up conversation is the last thing you need. Good luck!
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:07 AM on September 21, 2009

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