Image courtesy of health.harvard.edu
In the summer of 2018, armed with two suitcases and a pocket guide of Copenhagen, I moved to Denmark for my year abroad. People around me commented on how exciting it was to spend a year in one of the happiest countries on earth. I too thought I would regain some happiness there.
Taking advice from the university’s Erasmus department, I spent a considerable amount of time researching Danish culture. I came across the term ‘hygge’ (hoo-gah), a concept that has become comically popular in Britain and one which floods the commercial market with this new, cosy, candlelit way of life. The Guardian describes ‘hygge’ with a series of images: “Hands cupping warm mugs, bicycles leaning against walls, sheepskin rugs thrown over chairs.”
I envisioned stepping off the plane and into a small coffee shop full of laughing Danes, each with an artisanal black coffee in one hand and a craft beer in the other. Denmark consistently ranks highly in the World Happiness Report, coming 2nd after Finland in 2018 and 2019 respectively, I assumed that perhaps Copenhagen would be a haven from the global epidemic that is mental illness. I thought that simply being in proximity to Danes (people I assumed would be perpetually smiley and graciously content) would mean that some of their happiness would rub off onto me. I wanted to be wrapped up in this picturesque happy lifestyle. But this was not the case.
Good coffee in Denmark costs at least £5 (45 kr) and I am still mentally ill. A few years ago, before university began, I gave my boyfriend a short list of instructions entitled ‘How to deal with me when I’m sad’. It went something like this: Get up; Go outside; Eat something.
Above everything else on my list, eating is something that affects my mental health the most. But I began to realise that just eating something was not enough; I had to eat something nutritious. As a fresher, I descended into a cycle of emotional eating. Being suddenly forced into painful self-reliance, I found myself consuming only energy drinks and ready meals. And, although my fridge would be graced with gem lettuce once a term, more often than not my 60p attempt at being healthy would end up in the bin.
Isolated, tired, and depressed, I would walk to the campus shops each evening. I felt off-kilter and anxious as if the shop assistant was judging me for my purchases: a bar of chocolate and a large sharing packet of Haribo’s. In these first few months of university, I locked myself away in my Parkwood room and tried to combat my misery with sugar. This was a strategy that briefly worked; the sugary endorphins leaving me temporarily ‘happy’ but ultimately more depressed in the long-term. For months I self-medicated my depression with sugar, and my cycle of sugary gluttony ended only after a trip to the dentist.
It was when I moved abroad that my eating habits changed. Copenhagen seemed to be the catalyst for my healthy eating revolution. The student cafeteria at the University of Copenhagen sold freshly made tomato soup, plates piled high with an assortment of intricate salads, and smørrebrødb (an open-faced sandwich composed of elegantly placed toppings, often fish, egg, or cold meat on a piece of rye bread). And, instead of crisps, my Danish peers ate carrot sticks. Denmark.dk, Denmark’s official website, proudly explains that Danes value seasonal locally produced food, ensuring that this organic produce is sold in all schools and universities.
Yet, it would be misguided to suggest that Danish students simply eat better than students of other nationalities. Healthier options do not always mean healthier choices are being made. And healthier choices do not always mean better mental health. There is still plenty of Danish depression.
Even though I felt happier and healthier after living in Copenhagen, the utopian Denmark that I had expected did not exist. Instead, it was the perspective I gained whilst abroad and the influence of good friends that improved my mental health. It was the experiences I had that made me happier: cycling around the city every day, swimming in Islands Brygge harbour baths, buying kanelbrød (cinnamon bread) from Copenhagen’s oldest bakery.
Whilst healthy eating is not a mental health fix, healthy eating can be a good start to improving one’s mental health. Hopefully this article will serve as a gentle reminder to better look after yourself. It is a written effort to embed the phrase “carrot sticks against depression”; a slogan for the student healthy eating campaign that I have in my head.
After a few months abroad, I realised that although I felt happier and healthier living in
Copenhagen, it was the perspective I gained whilst abroad and the influence of good friends that really improved my mental health. I can honestly say I am so glad I chose to go to there for my year abroad. Copenhagen is a wonderful place to live and there are some fantastic places to go to on a day out. In summer, you might head to Reffen to take a dip in the harbour baths or explore the food market. You might grab a coffee along the colourful Nyhavn Harbour or visit Copenhagen’s oldest bakery, Sankt Peder’s Bakery, to buy their famous kanelsnelge (cinnamon bun). In the evening, you might want to spend a couple of hours at the Bastard Café (a late-night board game café and my favourite ‘go-to’ spot) or travel to Nørrebro for a beer at Brus brewery.
Unlike some European cities, I felt safe cycling around on my own, even at night. The cycling culture in Copenhagen is the best thing about the city. Every day, 62% of people cycle to work or school. Yes, joining the hordes of morning commuters was slightly terrifying, but it was an incredible way to get around as the city is nice and flat. And if you do not like cycling, you can instead travel on Copenhagen’s extremely efficient metro service, designed with the same minimalist, clean style that Scandinavia is known for. The metro is automated, and so there are huge windows at the front of the carriage beneath which are interactive panels where children can pretend they are operating the train. It may seem insignificant, but it shows how everything in Copenhagen is thoughtfully designed to improve the lives of those who live there.
However, as great as Copenhagen is, I realised that the utopian Denmark I had expected did not exist. Although my mental health largely improved during my year abroad, I was often depressed and no amount of good food, coffee shops, or cycling could change that. Rather, it was the experiences that pushed me out of my comfort zone which made me feel more confident and ultimately happier. Now that I have returned to England, I try to share my new appreciation and dedication to good food with other students who still add ketchup and mayonnaise to every meal. And hopefully, it will not take moving to another country for some of you to realise the importance of healthy eating when it comes to your mental health.