With restrictions on travel and socialising because of the coronavirus pandemic, many expats may be feeling especially isolated this winter season – a feeling that can lead to anxiety and depression. We take a look at the factors that affect the mental health of expats and the importance of getting the help you need if you’re experiencing mental health issues.
Expats face a higher overall risk of mental health problems
While living and working abroad can be enormously rewarding, it can also come with challenges. According to recent research, 50 per cent of US expats studied were at risk of problems such as anxiety and depression – two-and-a-half times higher than their US-based counterparts.
The study, The Mental Health Status of Expatriate Versus US Domestic Workers, also found that:
- Three times as many expatriates as US-based workers expressed feelings of being trapped or depressed
- Twice as many expats as US-based workers expressed feelings of anxiety or nervousness
“Studies estimate that American expatriates have assignment failure rates as high as 40 per cent, which often results from stress caused by cultural difference and demanding workloads,” says David Sharar, Ph.D, Managing Director of Chestnut Global Partners, the company that co-conducted the research.
What can cause mental illness in expats?
So why do these mental health issues affect expats? Cultural, climate, religious and language differences between the familiar home environment and the less familiar new country can all play a part. It is also common to be concerned about whether you will be accepted by the host country.
Other common factors that can lead to mental health problems include:
- Separation from family and friends
- The need to develop a high level of self-sufficiency
- Depending on the country, anxiety and stress can be caused by exposure to poverty, violence, suffering, death and the risk of disease
“Homesickness and social isolation are among these [problems],” says Madrid-based counsellor Kristin Ketelslegers. “There is a lack of support for expats, so it’s more difficult to cope with new circumstances because they don´t have family or friends nearby.”
Chris Neill, another Spain-based counsellor, agrees that rates of depression – or the feeling that life is meaningless – could be up to 50 per cent higher among expats. He also believes that anxiety is not unusual for people living abroad.
“People with anxiety stop enjoying activities that used to give them pleasure,” he says. “They don’t want to go out anymore and they start ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.”
Stress and anxiety that arise from moving to a new country are common, and a desire to seek a cure for mental health issues can sometimes make the situation worse. Not knowing how to cope with loneliness or how to deal with homesickness can lead to serious problems.
Help for mental health issues is out there
If you are suffering with expat mental health issues such as stress and anxiety while living/working overseas you may feel that it’s difficult to find the right help and support. What can you do about it?
Skowronski says that people may have trouble finding appropriate, quality help in small towns and cities, which, combined with their smaller size can make coping with loneliness harder. He also says that many people simply don’t know that there is support available in their host country.
“There are three barriers – the language, the culture and the mental state – to overcome. Many people give up seeking help at the start, believing it is not available for foreigners or they won’t receive the treatment that would suit them,” he says.
But the truth is that many countries have mental health services available. Many major towns and cities offer counselling and mental health support, and treatment at these centres is often covered by insurance.
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