The stigma associated with mental health is a pervasive phenomenon all over the world, especially so in India. The understanding of mental health is rather limited in the country and often overlooked as a condition that requires treatment. Addressing mental health problems and seeking assistance at the earliest is very important. Research by the WHO (World Health Organization) has shown that all over the world, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health issue any given year.
Further, at some point in nearly every individual’s life, they will have to deal with a mental health crisis or challenge. This is important because balancing your mental health does not always mean dealing with a clinically diagnosed problem. Every individual, irrespective of whether they suffer from a clinical disorder, deal with bouts of depression, anxiety or paranoia. All of us go through low phases, we have anxious episodes and essentially deal with imbalances in our mental health.
In India, reports have shown that “at least 6.5 per cent of the Indian population suffers from some form of a serious mental disorder, with no discernible rural-urban differences”. The shortage of mental health professionals and the apprehension surrounding the subject of mental health has contributed to further complications. Suicide rates are alarming, a large number of the population is succumbing to the consequences of mental health, despite the fact that it is possible to get treated and lead a better life. The discussion surrounding mental health needs to be normalised so people suffering from disorders can be more vocal about their problems.
Mental health and its associated stigmas
Mental health disorders range from depression, clinical anxiety, personality disorders, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and include many other categories. A person can be diagnosed at any age and requires treatment to deal with the symptoms of the disorders. Untreated mental health problems cause severe impairment in daily life, many times leading to suicidal thoughts and other harmful tendencies.
Individuals with mental health problems suffer stigma at different levels. The first type is the stigma at the social level. The prejudice and discrimination within society associated with mental health make people shy away from seeking out treatment and discussing their struggles. The second is a self-perceived stigma. This is when a person internalizes shame and guilt associated with mental health, they blame themselves for all that they are going through. Both of these stigma’s work negatively on an individual with a mental health disorder. It hinders their diagnosis and treatment.
Can travel benefit mental health?
Travelling and going on vacation is often associated with leisure, a break from the monotony of everyday life. Everyone enjoys a vacation every now and then, but travel does not solely exist for recreation. It’s been known to enrich lives. And it seems to have a relation to overall well-being and health.
Evidence has shown that travelling can be a great stress-buster, it can significantly boost happiness and satisfaction and make one mentally resilient. The various facets of travel, especially those involving immersing yourself in another culture, can be extremely beneficial to mental and emotional well-being. While dealing with a new surrounding, we learn to cope better with circumstances that may sometimes be out of our control.
People with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety could actually benefit from travel time because their happiness levels may increase. Individuals with mental health problems isolate themselves from society, dwelling on their negative thoughts with a sense of hopelessness. Aside from this, as a means of coping, they often put up a brave front, acting as if they are perfectly normal. This false image that they create misleads people who could actually offer them help. This coping mechanism is directly related to the negative responses they anticipate from society if they decide to discuss their mental health struggles.
If the fact that a trip could directly change the level of their happiness, travel itself could be looked at as a form of therapy.
What does the research say?
Research in 2011 by Jeroen Nawijn examined happiness and vacations. It was found that tourism may add to individuals’ happiness in two ways. First, through anticipation before the trip, through the trip itself and then the ‘glow’ post-trip. Secondly, travel experiences could contribute to happiness in everyday life through “more indirect mechanisms, such as reminiscing of holiday experiences through memories.”
Positive psychology, a branch of psychology, focuses heavily on an individual’s positive thoughts and emotions and how they can directly change their lives. It explores how people can become happier and remain fulfilled. Our outlook and our willingness to improve is what is at the core of positive psychology. With this as a framework, travel could be a way for an individual with mental health problems to take a step to overcome their issues by working towards cultivating positive thoughts through their travel experiences.
Research in the area of travel and wellness was conducted by Jennifer Reinders. She studied the relationship between long vacations and happiness. Her findings showed that “participants felt healthier and had higher well-being during the vacation compared to their constitution before the vacation”. Further, “participants had better health and well-being even a few weeks after the vacation.” Her research also arrives at the conclusion that “that longer vacations (≥ fourteen days) may have positive effects on health and well-being even after work resumption, in contrast to moderately long (≤ nine days) and short vacations (≤ five days).”
While research on travel and mental health is rather limited, from the available findings, it is evident that travel can positively affect a person’s emotional make-up. However, most research does not measure an individual’s mental well-being over an extended period of time after a vacation. Most subjects are studied only till a few weeks after their vacation to understand the effect of it. More research needs to be conducted to analyze if travel has a long-term impact on mental health, or if it is merely a quick escape.
What do professional psychologists think?
Deepika Nambiar, a psychologist, believes that travelling does have a positive effect on mental health. “Exploring new places, meeting new people, helps to take a break from the monotonous routine and the stress and tensions of day to day life. It boosts an individual’s mental and emotional health by helping them to relax, rejuvenate and recharge themselves”. It’s not just the trip that helps a person mentally, the anticipation of the trip itself can boost happiness levels.
“The very thought about going on a trip makes you positive and cheerful thereby boosting an individual’s mood and self-confidence. Travelling also serves as a learning experience for people thereby making them more resilient mentally and emotionally. It helps to learn how to adjust and adapt to new situations which might be outside that person’s comfort zone.”
However, Deepika also says that people with anxiety might sometimes get overwhelmed with the unfamiliarity associated with travel. “Jet lag inconveniences encountered, being in an unfamiliar place, the problems in coordinating travel can all increase anxiety. People who have anxiety issues might feel panicky due to the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of the places.”
Dr Shubha Badami believes that open spaces are greatly beneficial because it exposes parts of the brain to light. “Research has proved that daylight has a very positive effect on depression and psychosis. If individuals spend more time outdoors, away from their tedious schedules, it can help their mental health conditions.”
A 25-year-old MPhil student who specialises in clinical psychology spoke about how travelling can help people with depression to get rid of their negative thoughts and be more mindful. “When people travel, they get a chance to meet new people and form new relationships. A lot of people who suffer from depression believe that they are incapable of making and sustaining relationships. When they travel and form new bonds, there is a sense of accomplishment created within them. This is always positive,” she said.
What travel means to individuals with mental health problems
Sakshi, a 21-year-old student, who has struggled with depression feels that travel has helped her feel better on more than one occasion. “I love the mountains, I love going out on family vacations because it really refreshes me. It allows me to divert my mind and focus on the journey that I’m a part of.”
Akanksha, a 25-year-old content writer who has had bouts of depression and anxiety feels that certain trips in her life have been extremely mentally uplifting. “There was a time when I was going through a particularly low phase, this is when I went out on a trip to the hills with a friend. The entire journey was an experience to remember. A trek, in particular, made me feel extremely good about myself. We had to trek for about 9 km, I was exhausted, but when I finished, I felt incredibly rejuvenated. It was a great sense of accomplishment for me. I believe that travel can be extremely transformative for someone suffering from mental health problems.”
Meera, a 23-year-old teacher, has had her fair share of struggles with mental health. She is of the opinion that travel has the potential to really benefit people with mental health disorders. “Travel has uplifted my moods many times. The idea of planning a trip and going to a new place offers me a distraction from dwelling on my negative thoughts. I can cope better with negative thought spirals if I’m out and travelling. I enjoy meeting new people and immersing myself in another culture.”
While travel seems to have positively impacted the people mentioned above, there can be a downside to it. Kritika (name changed) enjoys travelling but also faces a huge amount of anxiety while on a plane. The entire journey causes her a lot of stress, however, once she reaches her destination she is able to enjoy her time there. It is only in transit that she feels anxious and unsure. This phenomenon isn’t uncommon. Anxiety can spring up at certain moments and then fade in another situation. Therefore, while travel can boost happiness and resilience, it can create situations of anxiety that need to be handled with care.
Why incorporating travel into our lifestyles is important
Dealing with a mental illness is a long-drawn process. There are stages of diagnosis and recovery that an individual goes through that can sometimes be taxing. There is no easy cure for mental health problems. A combination of sustained therapy and medication is required for a person to cope better with their daily lives. However, travel could be looked at as a form of therapy for these individuals.
We must realise that the recreation and relaxation that accompanies travel is not just a temporary “feel good” experience. It has the potential to leave a positive, lasting impact on the psyche of an individual, thereby boosting mental health. Travel can even be immensely beneficial for those people who are not clinically diagnosed. Individuals who encounter health troubles infrequently can boost their mood with short travel plans.
Additionally, it is crucial for children to be exposed to the outdoors from a young age. Childhood experiences are often linked to mental health problems later in life. “If from a young age a child is allowed to play, interact with the environment and move around in free space, there are better chances of them discovering new things. Their thoughts widen and their resilience builds,” says Dr Shubha Badami. Unstructured time, away from routine, is crucial for development.
Going out on short vacations, taking a break from work is always a good idea for someone who is already juggling mental strain. Any form of travel can come as a welcome relief and help people adjust and cope with their disorders and problems.