This week marked World Mental Health Day, so it seemed like a good chance to talk about the mental health of expats around the world. Studies have shown expats to be at a higher risk for mental health issues than most. These often manifest themselves in depression, or expat depression. It’s something very real for the community of expatriates around the world. You would think anyone brave enough to leave their native country and live overseas must have it all together. It makes sense, right? Well, the truth is, depression is common among the expat community.
This subset of people are more susceptible to depression because of their unique circumstances. Moving abroad isn’t easy. Culture shock and homesickness can quickly spiral into expat depression. It’s not often discussed, but I’ve seen it and lived it. There are many reasons, warning signs and tips to avoid and control expat depression.
Expat depression is what it sounds like – feelings of severe and sustained despondency and dejection experienced while living abroad. The definition may be simple, but the nature of expat depression isn’t so cut and dry. This is because expat life comes with obvious challenges to emotional and mental health.
It’s almost guaranteed that at times and expat will feel dejection while living abroad. However, going through a period of homesickness and culture shock is natural and while difficult – it will pass. Expat depression – those sustained and severe feelings of dejection – is a more serious matter and deserves serious attention.
Recognizing Expat Depression
It can be hard to recognize expat depression. In fact, expats are often resistant to admitting they’re experiencing depression. There’s a few reasons for this. One is simply the nature of an expat opportunity. It comes with the pressure that you should be happy to have the opportunity in the first place. The idea that anyone would love to live abroad gives you an expectation to be happy with your circumstances. You resist the idea that you somehow aren’t constantly happy with your fortunate situation. How could you be depressed when you get to do so many things that most people only dream of?
Another reason why expats fail to see that they’re experiencing depression is because expatriating often involves a positive career move. A new or better job, like the excitement of living abroad, gives a false expectation of being happy. A change of job duties can be stressful and make someone vulnerable to depression. Doing it while abroad and adjusting to a new culture, country and work environment can make things even more difficult. When you compound those difficulties with the pressure to perform and the stigma surrounding depression, expats are even less likely to admit their depression.
Culture shock is a natural part of the expatriating experience. It usually comes in two waves where things seem great, then drop off dramatically. Life abroad becomes tough and it impacts an expats emotions. Then things start to improve, and a second drop off occurs before life eventually stabilizes. Most expats report this 5 stage cycle of culture shock’s ups and downs.
While the severity of culture shock impacts everyone differently, it’s easy to write off expat depression as a stage of culture shock. It can be normal to feel defeated and beaten down emotionally from culture shock. It’s still different than a prolonged period of severe despondency. The latter is expat depression.
Homesickness is also a natural part of the expatriate experience. It differs from culture shock because it’s, of course, centered around being separated from your home environment. It makes life difficult for expats, but it’s natural and usually temporary. Many people mistake their expat depression as homesickness and something that is only temporary.
How to Deal With Expat Depression
Expat depression hits when feelings of homesickness or culture shock give way to a long period of despondency. There are many ups and downs for an expat. You have to take stock of your feelings and your own mental health during these periods.
There are steps you can take to deal with expat depression and keep it from creeping into your life abroad. There will still be ups and downs of expat life, but you can manage the difficult times with these tips.
Also check out our expat advice for the first 30 days and the first 4 months of living abroad.
10 Tips to Prevent Expat Depression
Get Proper Sleep – This is good advice for anyone, no matter where they live. A proper night of sleep is crucial to mental and physical health. When life abroad gets difficult, you need to be at 100% health, and that means adequate sleep.
Stay Active and Exercise – Another great way to maintain health is through physical activity. It can reduce stress levels and anxiety. Exercise also boosts self-confidence – which is especially helpful for expats.
Temper Alcohol Use – When you’re going through a difficult time, alcohol isn’t the best solution. It’s fine to enjoy some win with dinner or unwind with a few beers, but monitor your intake. During an emotional stretch of life, drinking less alcohol is advisable.
Make Connections to Build a Support System – It’s vital for expats to make new friends. Having a network of friends makes it easier to adjust to expat life. Not only will you have friends to answer questions and help your transition, you will have people to lean on emotionally.
Lay Off of Social Media – There is a use for social media. It can help expats maintain relationship with friends and family abroad. Social media can also be a negative trigger. Expats will have pressure to display their new lives on social media. There are also reminders of home on social media. They can trigger stress and anxiety for expats in difficult times.
Let People Know They Can Help You – It’s important to lean on your support system while you’re living abroad. Let people know how they can help your situation. This may mean scheduling calls or FaceTime sessions with family or friends at home. It may be recruiting new friends to help you with tasks in your new country. No matte what, let people know how to help you.
Seek Professional Help – If things are really piling up, see a professional. There’s nothing wrong with finding a professional to talk to during your expat experience. Finding a doctor early in the process will make things easier during your adjustment to life abroad.
Don’t Overdo It – Expat life means a lot of changes at once. You don’t have to overdo it though. You may have a new job, new apartment and a new country to learn about. Take things one day at a time. Also, allow yourself the time you need to adjust. We also recommend avoiding a lot of travel in the early part of your expat life. This is so you can make your new city feel like home.
Avoid Stressors – There are some stressors that will be unavoidable, but stay away from those you can control. Learn what your triggers are and stay away from things that cause you anxiety.
Communicate – Be upfront and communicate with everyone involved in your move. This means your spouse, kids, family at home and your colleagues. Communication is key in maintaining your mental health through an expat assignment.
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