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Top Tips for Good Mental Health as an Expat

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Top tips for good mental health

Recently a ground-breaking study explored the levels of stress faced by expats. It found that expats were three times as likely to express or endorse feelings of being trapped, isolated or depressed. On a broader level, 50% of expats the study surveyed were found to be at a high risk of internalising common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

The tricky thing for expats is differentiating between the very normal process of cultural adjustment – which takes time and some patience, but which often resolves itself – versus difficulties adjusting that don't seem to be getting better over time, or where suffering is taking a toll in other areas of life and so requires attention.
Dana Nelson PH.D, American psychotherapist based in Lyon, France. She produces a series of podcasts for The Mindful Expat, which seek to highlight the issues facing people who move overseas.

Things haven’t changed much since. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse. So, as a new generation of expats, remote workers, and international citizens set out for foreign shores, what are some of the challenges that you might face when moving to a new country?

Top of the list for many is being homesick. Even if you’re really looking forward to the excitement and novelty of living abroad, it’s inescapable that you’ll miss family and friends. Or simply just the everyday life that you were used to. One thing that many expats do not consider is the isolation from the informal support networks provided by friends and acquaintances that comes from living abroad. While COVID-19 has thrown a new light on virtual connectivity, nothing quite beats face time.

Expats may also experience the fear that everyone at home will quickly forget you. Some choose not to share these fears with their usual confidants because they want them to think they’re new life is perfect and that they’ve made the right decision in moving.

It can be tough making new friends, especially if you have built up friendships over many years in your home country. Building friendships in a new country where the local language is not your native tongue can make it even harder to meet new people.

What can you do about it?

  • Seek a connection. Attending a language class or joining an activity group is a great way of learning to love something about a new country as well as making friends locally
  • Set some boundaries. Don’t compromise on quality time with your family or doing other things that are important to you
  • Remember to sleep and exercise. Physical activity and sleep have both been linked to mental wellbeing
  • Ask for advice. Join online communities and ask for advice well before you go, and find out about what issues you’re likely to encounter in your chosen destination. Expat Forum, Expat Exchange, The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide and Mumsnet are all great sources of information
  • Treat your mind like your body. Find out what help is available locally in case you ever have need of it and time is not readily available. Help can be sourced through the International Therapist Directory
  • Don’t spend your life online. Keep up with friends and family at home as much as possible, but also try going out and making new friends locally
  • Recognise expat depression. Being able to act on negative feelings is an essential part of the expat’s toolkit. If you feel depressed and suspect that you may be suffering any mental health issue, seek help at the earliest opportunity
  • Manage your expectations. If you’ve experienced mental health issues in the past, make sure you have support in place before you go.

Expat mother-of-three Tavy says: “My advice would be to never underestimate what an upheaval expatriation is, especially with small children in tow. You need to prioritise self-care so that you can face the challenges that each day inevitably brings.”

Money can also be a worry when you move abroad, particularly early on when you will have to make a lot of payments on essential items and deposits. You may also have to wait for items such as furniture to be shipped from home, and incur extra expenses to source similar ‘comforts’ while you wait for your own to arrive.

Be self-aware

Top tips for good mental health the unique, and often unexpected, pressures associated with living abroad can come as a shock, which could lead to mental health issues, stoked by feelings of isolation – which, in turn, can stem from a fear of confiding in other expats or loved ones back at home.

So, some good forward planning can go a long way to help mitigate some these challenges, with online forums like Expat Forum, Expat Exchange, The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide and Mumsnet helping to paint a realistic picture of what life will really be like.

Understanding depression and taking measures to guard against it will help ensure expats in their adopted country make the most of their time overseas.

Signs of depression:

  • Consistent feelings of being sad or down (or the absence of positive feelings) for most of the day, nearly every day, lasting at least a couple of weeks
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Sleep issues
  • Changes in energy levels
  • Unexplained changes in appetite
  • Unintentional weight loss or gain
  • Loss of interest or inability to take pleasure in things previously enjoyed
  • Unexplained physical ailments
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions

Source: American Psychiatric Association