Digging to Roam

How to Take Care of Your Mental Health While Traveling

Museum Display, Mexico City
Photo by the author
Museum Display, Mexico City Photo by the author

Travel can be enormously beneficial to mental health. Seeing the world can teach important skills for adapting to new circumstances and make you more open-minded. Engaging with different cultures can boost creativity and just planning a vacation can be enough to improve someone’s mood. But despite the benefits, there are risks involved. Travel and mental disorders can make for a potent cocktail.

No matter how long you’re traveling for, or how you’re getting there, or how far you’re going, you should be taking precautionary measures to protect your health. This is especially critical if you are coping with issues of addiction and mental illness.

Mental health issues are cited as one of the most common medical problems experienced by travelers. About 11 percent of travelers are assumed to experience some sort of mental health problem. The numbers are higher in long-term travelers such as migrants and expatriates. This correlates with the different levels of stress these groups face. Short-term travel causes the least amount of stress while expatriates and frequent travelers experience the highest levels of stress. Up to 20 percent of repatriations are due to mental illness.

Travel, in and of itself, can bring on symptomatic behaviors and even acute episodes of mental illness. For example, jetlag has been cited as a cause of psychotic episodes in travelers. Jetlag is a real, albeit temporary, medical disorder with symptoms that range from the emotional to the physical. The most common of these include insomnia, fatigue, irritability, poor concentration, headaches, and digestive issues. Sleep deprivation and the interruption of normal biological rhythms are thought to be largely responsible for jetlag’s stronghold on mental disorders. People with mood disorders are especially vulnerable when subjected to disruptions in the circadian clock.

Jetlag is most commonly experienced when a person travels more than two time zones by airplane. However, there are people who can be affected by a single time zone change. A related condition, travel fatigue, can affect mental health even though it does not usually affect the circadian rhythms. Travel fatigue is not as long lasting as jetlag, but it is still concerning for those who are vulnerable. The symptoms of travel fatigue vary from disorientation to headaches.

It isn’t unusual for people to experience new symptoms or even to have their first major episode of mental illness while traveling. Pre-existing mood disorders may become aggravated. Even people without diagnosed conditions can have a mental health disorder emerge during travel, such as psychosis manifesting in people who don’t have a history of it. Acute psychotic attacks make up an estimated 20 percent of “travel-related psychiatric problems” and psychiatric emergencies rank among the top reasons for air evacuation.

Emergency Contacts

Domestic Violence

In an emergency call 911
Find more resources here

1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)

200 languages (USA based)
TTY 1-800-787-3224
Online chat


1-866-879-6636 (USWOMEN)

International toll-free

Suicide Prevention

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1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

Connect with a local crisis center (USA based)
TTY 1-800-799-4889
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Virtual crisis center


Listings of suicide hotlines worldwide
Wiki listing

Young People

In an emergency call 911
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Help with dating abuse for teens (USA based)
Online chat
Text “LOVEIS” to 22522

1-800-422-4453 (4-A-Child)

Child abuse hotline (USA based)


LGBTQ youth crisis intervention and suicide prevention
Online chat
Text “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200

Crisis Support

In an emergency call 911
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Crisis Text Line

24/7 support
Text: “HOME” to 741741


Crisis call center (USA based)
Text: “ANSWER” to 839863

Click here for more travel advice and survival guides

Original published 30 August 2017
Posted here 24 October 2017
By Kristance Harlow

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