While travel might be challenging for someone with mental illness, it can also be life-enhancing. In this personal story from Juliette Burton that has key points backed by research, we explore how one person’s mental health challenges can be improved by exploring the world.

Here I am, on a plane, about to go on my first solo holiday abroad for pleasure. I’ve been abroad alone for work, not for leisure. But I’ve, before now, only ever taken actual holidays with partners or friends.

And due to my mental illnesses, there was a time I didn’t think I’d ever do this.


Longing To Explore


When I was in hospital, I stared at the same four walls for days upon weeks, for months on end. I wasn’t encouraged to explore, or to take much agency over my own life, for my own safety. I was deemed a danger to myself when I was sectioned under the mental health act, years ago.

While some mental illnesses are associated with impulsivity and recklessness, there is also evidence that recovery from mental illness can be promoted through positive risk-taking. In fact, a lack of independence can increase symptoms of depression.

Of course I needed to reach a certain level of recovery before traveling at all, let alone solo. Timing, preparation and strong support helps someone like me enjoy the benefits travel can bring.


Travel Psychiatry


The relatively new term ‘travel psychiatry’ expresses how someone with mental illness might find travelling abroad both challenging and a positive experience. Whether it is a challenge or a positive experience apparently relies upon the individual and their healthcare practitioner both having a strong understanding of how travel might impact their illness, and how their illness might impact their travelling.

Travel can also, for some, bring about the first symptoms of mental illness or reveal underlying, as yet undiagnosed, mental illnesses. Perhaps mental health problems could receive more recognition in travel medicine?


Autonomy of Choice


Traveling is my choice. Where to travel, what to eat, where to stay, what to do is all down to me. And since I’ve begun traveling solo, alone and without anybody to make decisions with, it really is all down to me.

There are many ways mental illness can disturb someone’s autonomy or ability to make their own empowered life choices. In recent years, psychotherapy has been steered towards strengthening authenticity, competence and self-belief to help someone with mental illness live a meaningful and fulfilling life even if their symptoms do not improve.

None of my mental illnesses nor the experiences that ensued because of them were empowering. It was not my choice to develop clinical depression or anxiety disorders, eating disorders, CPTSD or to be sectioned under the mental health act. It was not my choice to experience hallucinations or suicidal ideation. It certainly isn’t my choice to experience stigma. And it wasn’t my choice to experience the risk factors in younger years that made it more likely for me to develop mental illnesses.

And yet here I am, choosing to adventure into the world on my own, to a new place with new people and new sights, sounds, culture. Traveling gives me new chances to experience myself anew, with fresh eyes.


How To Have The Best Break


A truly relaxing and healthy holiday has a number of key ingredients: having free time, warmer and sunnier locations, being physically active, sleeping well, making new friends all contribute to better health benefits of a holiday. Choosing a location with not much of a time difference and avoiding illnesses on holiday also prevents post-holiday exhaustion.

And a holiday that lasts longer than a week is the greatest benefit to well-being. Holiday satisfaction rapidly improves when traveling, reaching peak happiness on the eighth day. However within a week of being back at work, health and well-being levels decrease and go back to approximately where they were before the break.


Travel Drawbacks: Lonely Planet?


One potential concern some people might have for someone for whom depression lingers is loneliness. Isolation is linked to mental disorders in people who have experienced a mental health crisis. However, loneliness is linked to the way we live life more than how many friends you have or whether you’re living with others or alone. By targeting loneliness, recovery from mental illness improves.

Counter-intuitive as it might seem, whenever I’ve been traveling alone, I’ve felt more connected not only to others but to myself.


Kindness of Strangers


When exploring a new place, I heavily rely on the kindness of strangers. This might seem naïve but my intuition kicks in and I learn to trust it. Not only do I trust myself more, I trust in the power of kindness.

Kindness of those around me has a huge effect on my outlook and well-being wherever I am. In a 2020 survey, 63% of UK adults said their mental health was improved by kindness shown to them and being kind to others. In fact, being kind can benefit our mental health and prevent physical illness. This might be partly because kindness is a key way to reduce stress.

When I’m in a strange city or country, a kind smile or friendly conversation feels even more life-affirming.


Self-reliance and self-care


Learning to look after myself, at home or anywhere else, has been a challenge throughout my life. My mental illnesses have led me to dissociate from my needs, using less healthy coping mechanisms to deal with my overwhelming thoughts and feelings.

But when I’m traveling, a sense of peace comes from being alone. I’m no longer too much. I’m distracted yet connected to who I am, my essential needs. Trusting myself also does not come easily due to my mental health experiences. Once you’re told the way you view the world or yourself is ‘mentally ill’ or not sane, how can you trust yourself?

Self-love, according to research, has three components: 1) giving attention to yourself 2) accepting yourself 3) caring for and protecting yourself. Self-care is also associated with resilience, protection from negativity and prevention of depression or anxiety. Perhaps when I’m traveling alone I pay more attention to myself exactly because I’m alone, I must accept myself as I am and if I don’t care or protect myself, no one else will.


Meaning and Mattering


While some might consider language to be a barrier to kind acts, I’ve found the contrary. Sometimes when language is removed or challenging, space opens up to find the truer meaning. When I try to learn a bit of the language of the country I visit, I engage one of the 5 ways of well-being – learning something new. There are cognitive benefits to being bilingual, though I would absolutely not count my conversational French or Spanish as bilingual.

Standing in a strange place surrounded by strangers, I repeatedly ask myself, “What do I mean?”

Meaning matters more.


Exchange Rate of Happiness


Of course, travel costs money. And in a cost of living crisis, looking after the pennies isn’t easy. There are ways to reduce the cost, such as camping or hostels instead of hotels. But even then, traveling costs not just money but our other vital resource – time.

How happy you are does not depend on how much money or time you have but how we choose to spend both and how fixated we become on either. So traveling costs me time and money and it makes me very happy indeed.


Carbon Footprint


The other huge worry, next to money, regarding travel is the effect on the environment. There is a clear link between climate change and negative impact on mental health. As global warming progresses, prevalence of mental illness is predicted.

There is a call for researchers to investigate what can be done to mitigate the impacts of the crisis on mental well-being. There is also a recommendation that vulnerable groups such as people with mental illness, children and young people need to be protected.

And yet here I am, on a plane, contributing to the problem with my carbon footprint.

There are other ways to travel. Train, boat, bike, electric car and on foot are all environmentally-friendlier ways to explore the world. For my next trip, my goal is to choose those options. For now though, I’ve waited so long to see the world and feel free within it, I’d love so much to enjoy it now it is possible.


There I Was


When I was sectioned under the mental health act, a friend sent me photographs of a beach in Sri Lanka he was visiting. He’d written on the back of the photograph, “This is waiting for you when you’re ready”. I’m ready to see the world now and truly enjoy all it has to offer.

And as the plane touches down in a new country, I realise; there I was… and here I am.


If you’d like to take part in an exciting travel opportunity and raise vital funds for mental health research, find out more about our Iceland Trek in 2024.

If you’d like to find out more about what it’s like to take part in a trek such as this, read about our Costa Rica Trek which took place in 2023.

The post Is travel good for your mental health? first appeared on MQ Mental Health Research.

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