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SAFETI Adaptation Of Peace Corps Resources
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Maintaining Strong Mental and Emotional Health
SAFETI Adaptation of Peace Corps Resources:
Pre–Departure Health Training Handbook
Maintaining Strong Mental and Emotional Health

Adapted from "Maintaining Strong Mental and Emotional Health" module, Pre-Service Health Training for Volunteers Binder, Peace Corps Office of Medical Services


Experience with previous transitions and coping mechanisms

Students may have previously been through various transitions, and already have many of the skills, techniques, and instincts needed to adjust to a new country. It is useful for them to review the coping mechanisms they have applied in the past, those that worked, and those that did not.

Assessing current stress levels

It is important to be able to identify what the source of stress is. It is natural for student to feel overwhelmed from time to time. Just pinning down what the matter is can be something of a relief.


Many emotions and reactions are to be expected when you are stressed. Some common manifestations are:

  • Irritability over small things
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Queasy stomach
  • Desire to run away
  • Constant feeling or tiredness
  • Psychosomatic illness
  • Excessive criticism of others
  • Poor work performance
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Being unusually introspective
  • Feelings of guilt, worry and anxiety


Poor coping choices

When a student is in a low mood, he or she is vulnerable, and thus more likely to make poor choice for coping. Examples of poor coping choices include:

  • Resorting to heavy alcohol use
  • Staying in bed 12-14 hours a day
  • Staying in your living quarters all day
  • Eating excessively
  • Avoiding friends and neighbors
  • Escaping into sexual relationships

Better coping choices

The more coping strategies a student has identified and thought about before his/her struggles begin, the more likely he/she is to make good choices. Based on feedback from numerous students, the following six basic techniques are especially helpful in dealing with the stresses and strains of adjustment:

  • Immerse yourself in study/reading that is satisfying
  • Find a local person with whom you can talk regularly
  • Practice your faith through prayer, meditation, reading, etc.
  • Write letters/e-mails (or make audiotapes) to family and friends
  • Visit fellow students
  • Meet with Resident Director/Faculty to talk about the stress


Experience tells us that there are some fairly predictable stages that most students go through during participation in study abroad. Knowing about them may help the student prepare and react more effectively:

  • Orientation and honeymoon
  • Initial culture shock/confrontation
  • Adjustment-crisis/depression-frustration-to adjustment (cycle)
  • Recovery-integration into host culture
  • Re-entry and reverse culture shock


The difference between what you expect and what you actually experience may determine the level of distress you feel. It is helpful, therefore, to review students' expectations and visualizations so that they are not surprised-or even shocked-by what they find.


Students should understand that among the many intercultural skills required for successful adjustment in a different culture, intercultural specialists believe that being aware of one's own culture is most important. "Understanding the culture you bring with you overseas helps you see the one you find much more clearly."

Other intercultural skills include:

  • Being aware of one's limitations
  • Respecting the other culture
  • Learning from interacting
  • Being non-judgmental
  • Avoiding stereotypes
  • Being able to communicate
  • Listening and observing
  • Tolerating ambiguity
  • Being persistent


As outlined in this session, it is "normal" to experience stress in adjusting to being a student, and all students will have to cope with stresses, strains, low moods, etc.- such struggles are natural. However, whenever your usual coping mechanisms are not working for you or you find yourself making coping choices that are not in your best interest, realize that you may need more support, and seek help.

Students need to be aware of whether a discussion will be confidential and of all the available counseling and support services providers. (This could include resident director, local counseling and health professionals at private or host institution health center, as well as program administration representative and health counseling center at the home campus.)

Signs of a serious problem, recognized in yourself or in a fellow student, which require intervention include:

  • Prolonged depression
  • Marked changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Excessive anxiety that interferes with the ability to function
  • Self-destructive or violent behavior
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Failure to comply with medical recommendations

Adapted from "Maintaining Strong Mental and Emotional Health" module, Pre-Service Health Training for Volunteers Binder, Peace Corps Office of Medical Services