Throughout this column we’ve focused on mental illness as it pertains to the person experiencing it. But what happens when you’re traveling with someone who may be going through the motions of a depressive, obsessive, or manic episode?
One in five people in the United States suffer from mental illness each year. Given the fact that traveling can exasperate mental conditions, there’s a chance that your travel buddy may be hit with the travel blues at some point on your journey.
The sad truth is that mental illness affects everyone.
While you yourself may not be afflicted, your comrade’s distorted thinking could seriously change the course of your trip.
Often, we expect tense situations while traveling. We know that there will probably be moments when our annoyances for our trip mates come out in unsuspecting ways.
But when the person with whom we’re traveling is not uplifted by a beautiful sunset, cannot share the cultural significance of being on a crowded bus, or is too tired to swim in the ocean, how can we share empathy instead of falling to the mindset that they are ruining our trip?
Lack of understanding can be extremely detrimental to your traveling friendship — even more so when the person who you’re trying to understand cannot articulate their struggles.
First, remember that no one wants to struggle with mental illness.
I have been the one to bring down a travel partner because of my depression. I’m sad to say that the recurring thought that I was “ruining” our trip contributed to my sullen state of mind.
Second, be easy on yourself.
If you’re upset by your travel buddy’s actions (or lack thereof) because of their mental state, remind yourself that it’s okay to feel that way. You are entitled to feel all the emotions and do not have to tailor your personal response to other people.
Finally, recognize that a travel experience that comes with a side of mental illness could be enriching.
The New York Times Magazine published an article discussing the “Upside of Depression.” According to their sources, depressive states that last only a few months could be beneficial for helping the afflicted evaluate their social relationships.
We often put huge expectations on our travel excursions — that they will be life-changing, help us to find ourselves, and be unquestionably beautiful. What we don’t often discuss is how the dark side of life, which can be present in our travels, will also help us attain these goals.
When you find yourself about to embark on a journey with a mentally ill friend or partner, set yourself up for the unexpected with empathy and vulnerability.
Here are a few tips to get the conversation started:
1. Educate yourself.
One of the best things you can do to help a travel companion suffering with mental illness is to learn about their disease. This will also enable you to understand what to expect if an episode should occur. Here’s a great information sheet on specific kinds of mental illness, and this site explains how to be a mental health ally.
If your friend is opening up about their mental illness, show your support by just listening.
When I was going through depressive bouts, one way in which I coped was by talking. Obsessive thoughts plagued me. I had this sensation that if I didn’t get them out, I would be overwhelmed by them. My travel companion at the time simply positioned herself as a non-judging soundboard. After talking it out, I always felt a little better.
3. If you’re close enough, encourage them to make a crisis action plan.
One of the best suggestions for those suffering with bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder is to agree to adhere to a preset plan of action when episodes occur.
First, begin by documenting what it is like for that person to be feeling well. The purpose of this is to have a baseline of understanding if their mental state starts to devolve.
Second, create a list of episodic symptoms or triggers.
Third, make a plan of action, including those to involve or not involve, if your travel partner can no longer make decisions for themselves.
Include in this plan their medication schedule and dosage(s).
4. Give your travel partner props for engaging in healthy behaviors.
When you’re traveling with someone with mental illness, a few words of encouragement about healthy behaviors can be very affirming. They could do something as small as staying hydrated or sharing their feelings with you, or they could do something as big as letting you know they’re feeling an episode coming on or that they’ve been taking their medication regularly.
When you give positive quips, you show that you care. Most individuals suffering from mental illness are comforted by support and assurance from their peers and loved ones.
5. Take care of yourself.
At times, those suffering from mental illness can influence our own state of mind. We want to help those we love so much that we forget to help ourselves.
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Take pleasure in the things you enjoy, and immerse yourself in them. If you’re feeling stressed while traveling, consider taking a break to do different activities. Taking personal space is not selfish or disrespectful to your travel partner. It’s a part of maintaining healthy boundaries!
Most people with mental illness function normally with it every single day, so traveling together may not affect them adversely at all. However, having an open dialogue about what they’re going through could provide them with an extreme amount of relief.