Mental Health and Me: What it’s like to travel with a mental illness

  • 18 Apr, 2017
  • Franki Napolitano

Mental Health and Me - Travelling with a Mental Illness

Mental Health. A subject that for many is difficult to talk about, understand or even relate to. For years, mental health problems have been seen as taboo, but luckily this is slowly becoming a thing of the past. This is thanks to initiatives such as Heads Together, a campaign backed by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, alongside Prince Harry, to end the stigma around discussing mental health and illness.

You’ll know from our past blogs that we have covered topics on travelling with a hidden disability, so we thought it was about time we looked into travelling with a mental illness too, because let’s face it, it’s got to be just as challenging, right?

The difference between the meaning of Mental Health and Mental Illness

How did we get involved?

Back in January, we sent a survey out across social media with a range of questions designed to give us an idea of what travelling was like and what issues may be faced by those with an illness, their family members or carers alike. The answers sometimes shocked us and broke our hearts, but we were equally warmed by the sense of community and the openness and honesty of everyone that took part.

Let’s get stuck in and take a look at
who took our survey…

Meet our respondents, 80% are living with an illness, and 87% of those are living with more than one!

It was interesting to see how many identified with being affected by more than one illness, too. Something that maybe isn’t always taken into consideration by those who don’t have an illness. For instance, an eating disorder may also trigger anxiety and OCD.

So what did we ask and find out? Below we have summarised each of the questions we put to our respondents; how much of this can you relate to? Or have you ever considered that a fellow passenger could be facing these situations?

Hover over the slides if you need more time to read!

“Has your mental health
ever stopped you travelling?”

A huge 74% responded Yes to the above question, with plenty of explanations as to why. Alongside those mentioned in our graphic below, reasons included feeling too overwhelmed, it causes too much stress, public places are too dirty and people don’t care about those who don’t outwardly look like they “have something wrong with them”.

Responses to the question "If your illness has ever affected your decision to travel, why was that? - Mental Health and Me

We then asked, “Do you think there is enough support in the tourism industry for those travelling with a mental illness?” to which the answer was a resounding No. Many stated that they felt mental health issues or illnesses weren’t seen as a ‘problem’ and therefore assistance isn’t offered in the same way it would for a person with an obvious, physical disability.

How easy is it to obtain support when you don't look like you need it?

Several respondents picked up on just how stressful travelling can be, and many felt that this isn’t taken into consideration at security checks for example. Those with anxiety or bipolar for instance stated they may be perceived as acting “strangely”, leading to questioning by security staff, thus unfairly worsening their mental state.

Experiences when travelling
with a mental health problem

Throughout this project, we have been lucky to work with representatives from several leading charities and organisations, who were more than happy to share their experiences of travelling with a mental health problem.

First up, we spoke to Jayne Hardy, Founder and CEO of the Blurt Foundation, a support organisation she set up after she lost the majority of her twenties to depression. Here she speaks about how her anxiety can hinder her travels. Just click the arrow to the right of the image below to read her story.

In another example, Vice President Richard Monaghan from SeeMe Scotland gave us his account of what it’s like to travel with acute anxiety;

“Everything that triggers acute anxiety is covered by air travel; the busy airport, people swarming like ants heading in all directions and there’s no time to ask for help. Courtesy is out of the window, passengers hell bent on getting to a certain desk, or gate, interrupted by passport checks, security checks, gate checks…

Direction signs that merge into a yellow blur, arrival and departure boards clicking away, all this is a sensory nightmare and my brain is in overload, panic is now starting to set in, and still, there is no one I can see who could help me. If I tell them I am suffering from acute anxiety would they even understand?

Oh to be a child again and have someone guide me through this madness and confusion, to be able to pass the message on to the next link in the chain as I progress towards the plane, and if it happened when I land at the other end, the journey would be like any other – before I became ill.”

Most people I know don't understand how it feels; Mental Health and Me

For a perspective on travelling with an eating disorder, Hope Virgo from Pulling the Trigger told us how it feels and how travelling actually helped her overcome her problem;

Travel really can broaden the mind

“Worrying about travel is normal. I know I certainly did. Sitting in the back of a car on the way to Heathrow Airport with a one-way ticket to Thailand, with no real plan, terrified me. This was the most spontaneous thing I had ever done, but when my boyfriend Will got a job teaching English in a village in Northern Thailand, I knew I had to risk it and go.

Arriving in Long with no hot water, geckos on the walls and a toilet that only flushed manually, I was already out of my comfort zone. What was I going to do about food? Calorie counting? Exercise? I was terrified. I was going to come back huge! But the reality was that actually there was something quite refreshing not having to think about food whilst I was away. Calorie counting was impossible.

Looking back, I realise that year massively helped my anorexia. Switching off from calorie counting was liberating, and although at times it was hard and scary, I did it. Don’t let having a mental illness stop you from travelling the world. It can be empowering, liberating and refreshing stepping away from the worries of normal day-to-day life. Push those boundaries and allow yourself some time to relax. I loved it. I learnt to love looking after myself and doing things I wanted to do. Living in London can, at times, be stressful, and you can easily get sucked into everyday pressures. So I guarantee that getting away helps.

It was that year whilst volunteering in a children’s centre that I realised I wanted to invest time in helping others. One way of doing this was to write a book – Stand Tall Little Girl – about my experiences of anorexia. I wanted my story to be used to empower others with mental health problems, proving that recovery is possible and that having a mental health problem doesn’t stop you doing things.”

No matter the situation or what condition the traveller is affected by, it’s clear that there are plenty of shared experiences. Here’s how several of our respondents described their experiences of travelling, in particular the airport journey itself.

Problem experienced when travelling - Mental Health and Me

Travel Insurance 

Along with everything you might need to consider when you are travelling with a mental illness, there are other factors that were brought to our attention during this survey, and one of those was that of travel insurance. Insurance is something that everyone should have when they travel overseas, but as with having other pre-existing conditions, getting cover can come at a price.

You’ll usually be seen as “high risk” and so therefore companies are reluctant to cover you, or if they do, you have to foot a hefty premium.  As you’ll see in the graphic above, one of our respondents stated that their original flight home was not covered by insurance when they needed to fly home sooner because mental health reasons aren’t considered an emergency.

Hardly seems fair, does it?

Stephen Buckley from Mind, had this to say on the matter:

“Having a mental health problem can make travelling challenging, especially abroad, but it shouldn’t stop somebody seeing the world.

We hear from people who have found it difficult to arrange insurance because of a pre-existing diagnosis for example, or from people who are unsure what kinds of medication they can take overseas with them.

Planning ahead can help overcome these challenges and make sure they enjoy their trip. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has a good guide about travelling abroad for people with mental health problems.”

There’s still a way to go to overcome this issue in the travel insurance industry, but it’s definitely something that travellers should be aware of when looking to go away.

So, what could be done?

Many of the respondents said that training for transportation staff in general needed to be rolled out, and any available assistance should be made clearer to those who may require it.

Other suggestions included separate seating areas for those with anxiety disorders to keep them away from too much crowding, priority queues for security and boarding the plane, and making it easier to access help. As one respondent, Mary, pointed out, “There seems to be very little way of 1) making travel companies aware of a mental health problem 2) getting across the difficulties it can cause even if on the surface the customer ‘looks OK’“.

The stigma of Mental Health is being explored - It's a lot easier to talk about now.

One anonymous account we received really struck a chord with us. Here they discuss what impact having depression, anxiety, an eating disorder and OCD/OCPD has had on their travel experiences and what may help others in a similar situation;

 “The thought of travelling by myself (anywhere, even to the shops or town) made me anxious and nauseous to the point where I just wouldn’t leave. I was once denied access onto a train as I was panicking and couldn’t explain to the conductor what was going on and which train I needed to be on. Generally I have found that some attendants (airport, rail station etc) do understand and are willing to help, if I am able to briefly explain why I am struggling. Only on one occasion have I found someone who was unwilling to help. My tips for travelling? Try not to think about it and worry too much. There are so many people around (which is a scary prospect in itself, I know) but they are all getting on with their day and not focussing on you. Attendants are generally all lovely and should you need help with anything, just ask. Write some notes in a notebook such as “I’m panicking. I need you to count slowly with me until I get my breath back”, “It’s too crowded, I need somewhere quiet” etc. so if you’re anxious and can’t talk, you can still explain what’s happening and what you need.”

Planning for your break

Travelling abroad? There are plenty of websites with information on the things you should consider before travelling, should you decide to do so. Most notably, you should research your destination; what mental health support facilities and organisations are in the area? Could you contact them prior to arrival to book in to any sessions at all? Are you comfortable in a foreign country? If you’ll be travelling with a companion, perhaps ask them to help you with the planning should you find it daunting.

On the flip side, if planning activities in advance makes you anxious, perhaps just a collection of information that’s ready to hand would be useful. It may also act as a nice distraction from any worries you may have.

Here, Polly from Bridge Mental Health explains how you can prepare for a trip if you’re feeling nervous. Just click on the arrows to read more!

Planning for your trip can be made easier when the airports themselves get on board with the problems we’ve highlighted. Here is how Inspire are working closely with Belfast City Airport, as  Peter McBride, Group Chief Executive explains:

“Mental health problems are regarded as one of the most common forms of illness and disability. We know that one in five people in Northern Ireland reported having mental health problems costing the local economy well over £3.5 billion per year.

As part of the partnership with Belfast City Airport, we are trying to find bright innovative ways to make people more aware of their mental health, and believe the mindfulness classes at the airport will do just that. People travel for a number of reasons and some find the journey itself stressful .

These classes are designed to reduce the stress of the journey by promoting positive wellbeing, offering tips for relaxation and building coping mechanisms.”

If staying in the UK, there are plenty of charities offering respite care, short trips and weeks away for those with mental health problems, the cost of which can usually be subsidised by the charity.

Each charity will offer something different, so keep that in mind. For instance, Making Space offer breaks for those with schizophrenia, Diana’s Supported Holidays offer supported trips around the UK and abroad, The Kiloran Trust offer respite breaks in London for carers and Revitalise offer breaks for adults with learning difficulties with 24 hour subsidised care.

Mental Health charity Mind has a network of 140 local Minds across England and Wales, some of which offer group trips. Look up your nearest local Mind to find out more.

Societal attitudes cause issues, not industries

Tips for travelling with a mental health problem

Finally, we asked our respondents what piece of advice they would give someone else travelling with a mental illness to which we received an overwhelming response! A lot gave the same advice on planning and travelling with a companion, and also to have back up plans should things not quite pan out as you’d expected them to. Although there was a resounding message of taking a travel partner to make things easier, a few advised travelling alone to help you combat your own fears and make you stronger. Which do you agree with?

Each of these tips are direct responses to our question;

Top travelling tips from respondents - Mental Health and Me

And our number one, top tip comes from Laura who has suffered from Depression, Anxiety and Panic Attacks in the past. She also has a  fear of heights and crashing ever since an accident she was involved in.  It’s more of a mantra than a tip, but it’s one that we feel a lot of travellers may find useful…

So, why did we pick Mental Health?

Mental Health awareness has been gradually increasing over the last year or so with thanks to various initiatives throughout the UK. The Heads Together campaign caught our eye in particular when we saw that it is heavily supported by Neil Laybourn and Jonny Benjamin, two of the UK’s biggest mental health campaigners following on from their Stranger on the Bridge story.

Click right on the image below to find out more about the work they are currently doing.

If you would like to support the work of the likes of Heads Together who in turn support the likes of CALM, Mind, YoungMinds and Place2Be, Jonny & Neil are doing plenty of fundraising! This year they will be running the London Marathon for Heads Together and kindly offered to collaborate with us on this article to boost their efforts to raise the profile of mental health awareness and contributing to the recognition it deserves.

You can make a donation to the Jonny and Neil Run London for Heads Together fundraising page to support their London Marathon dream or you can place bids in a silent auction to win dinner with them and your friends!

About Franki Napolitano

I love to Blog, Read and Sight-See, although you'll usually find me in the Gym!

16 responses to “Mental Health and Me: What it’s like to travel with a mental illness”

  1. This article is amazing, full of loads of experiences, advice and ideas from different people with lived experience of mental ill health and how this can impact on travelling. Everyone in the tourism and travel industries should sit down and read it. They would then understand that ill health does not make people difficult or dangerous would see that all that is needed is some good old fashioned kindness, support, patience, a few adaptations and hey presto, the service provided can be improved a hundred fold.

  2. I think this is a brilliant article. Mental illness needs to be more spoken about and how it affects people’s life. Travelling in this day and age most of us take for granted.
    Mental Health restricts people’s life and travelling can sometimes seem out of the question. With your article and examples it may encourage others to have a go. Well done

  3. I am on The Autistic spectrum and have had crippling depression for years. I’ve found that one of the few things that keeps me going is the prospect of travelling, from escaping from the reality that drags me down.
    I would urge anyone to not be put off by the barriers that present themselves but, if you want to travel, to get out there and do it. Don’t let over fussy companies and insurers put you off. The stigma attached to mental health is terrible and travel companies and insurers often can’t see the benefits we derive from travel. We are viewed as an inconvenience or a potential claim rather than just another client who wants to have a great trip. That discrimination has to stop.
    Travel can provide the opportunity to meet new people and experience new cultures. It broadens our horizons and, in my case, engenders positive mental health.
    Great article, thought provoking and something that should be read by everyone in the industry!.
    Ps. Open to job offers lol.

  4. Gosh, I’m literally in tears reading this. I really, really thought I was the only person in the world who struggles massively with mental health problems & travelling. I have anxiety disorder & OCD & whenever I fly, I have to take a large dose of diazepam otherwise I can barely make it through passport control without completely breaking down. That’s a long time before I’ve even stepped foot on the plane which is my MAJOR hurdle… I’ve cancelled flights before, refused to board an aircraft causing delays for everyone which made me feel about 100 times more anxious & depressed!! I’m travelling to Spain with my family in June & it takes a massive amount of “self counselling” to enable me to do it. Once i get to my destination, the first day of my holiday is wasted as all I do is sleep because the build up of the journey & journey itself has exhausted me. What an absolutely brilliant article!!!

  5. This is all fantastic stuff. But there is another condition that makes travelling a nightmare? That is Dyslexia. Airports are starting not to announce flights, but telling travellers to keep an eye on the written boards? If reading is a problem. and when stressed that reading becomes unreliable, how can Dyslexics hope to travel at all?

  6. I find it refreshing that mental health is coming to the fore of society’s understanding of being disabled. Being a physically disabled person for many years I did need help in travelling for work around Europe. I use a walking stick so it is fairly easy to see I have some sort of impairment and was offered assistance even on occasions when I had not requested it. For staff to identify people mental health issues would be difficult but I have often though it would be good if an internationally understood sign could used by staff to identify they have been trained in assisting with people with mental health issues. There is the wheelchair sign for the physically disable so why not for people with mental health issues. I may be suffering from a physical disability but the pain suffered does bring its own type of problems with mental health. I have seen considerable changes in attitude to the physically disabled but why is it only recently that mental health issues are dealt the same determination.

  7. Great to see this issue being raised and discussed so intelligently on this site.
    Faith in humanity is temporarily restored!

  8. Excellent article, mental illness needs to be included in our society in all walks of life including travel but not treated ‘special’ . I regularly travel abroad with my husband who has mental health problems, I agree that airport’s and tour operators need to be more transparent and plain with their rules as without my intervention my husband couldn’t travel and that’s not fair nor respectful to him. Being human includes all beings regardless of their mental state. We need to remove the stigma and it starts with you and me! If I choose to take a lift at the airport as well as a physically impaired person, that’s my choice, just make similar choices available to assist our fellow beings faced with mental health challenges.

  9. Great article but one area that can cause a lot of anxiety is the crowding on planes. Being in such close proximity to other passengers worsens my anxiety.

    Obviously on long haul there are business class and first class seats but I certainly can’t afford them.

    Imagine the feeling of claustrophobia when in the middle seat of three between two strangers on a crowded flight.

    • That’s a very good point Fiona. It’s not all that easy to make sure you get a seat that’s best for you either, at least, not without paying through the nose for it to pick it in advance!

  10. Whilst the tips for flying are good, and planning is key to ensure the experience is as smooth as possible, there are so many other issues that are almost impossible to address. Knowing where you are going in advance and leaving enough time to get there, checking everything out and knowing exactly where you need to be for the flight can ease the anxiety of airport stress. However, anxiety is not a beast that can be tamed so easily. It creeps up on you and whispers fears that don’t exist. It crawls into your mind and fills you with terror, over nothing. Staring out of the window and crying whilst simultaneously wondering what the heck is wrong, doesn’t make it easy to ask for help. And what to ask for? Telling the airline staff that you have anxiety can cause anxiety itself, and whilst i’m sure they would go out of their way to help you, check on you, pay specific attention to you, the first hurdle is asking…

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