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Top Tips for Good Mental Health as an Expat

Home Blog Top Tips for Good Mental Health as an Expat

Sharon Clarkson

Insurance Nurse Specialist

An important part of keeping fit and healthy is to take care of your own mental health. There are plenty of things you can do to help make sure you keep yourself mentally healthy. It is especially important during the COVID pandemic, when many people have felt isolated or have not had a chance to connect with their family.

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. We at William Russell support a lot of expats who move and live abroad, so here are our tips for mental health.

Expat depression during COVID-19 pandemic

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.

Things haven’t changed much since. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse. In May 2021, we asked over 1,100 expatriates worldwide about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their mental health. According to our survey, more than a third of expats feel their mental health has worsened during the pandemic.

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
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,
PHD, American psychotherapist based in Lyon, France

Top tips for good mental health and mental wellbeing

  • 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 work-life 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.

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.

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.
Expat mother-of-three Tavy

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.