Depression and expat life: something we don’t talk about enough

I wasn’t going to write a post today. I have a busy week with school assemblies and meetings and work to catch up on. I’m trying to do a final read-through of the Survival Guide before sending it to the proof-reader. The washing needs doing….there’s mouths to feed…you know the score.

But as I scrolled through my Facebook feed this morning, something caught my eye. One of my online ex-expat friends Nicola had posted something about today being “time to talk about mental health” with a supporting campaign called “Take 5“. As I read the post,  I wondered how many expats suffered from depression or other mental health issues – and how many of them (us) ever talk about it.

TTC_TTTDay_Hashtag

According to the Take 5 campaign, one in four of us will suffer from some sort of mental health issue every year. Now, I am no expert on this but knowing what I do about moving and living overseas, I can’t believe that already fairly shocking figure isn’t even higher amongst expats. Some of the sort of things that can lead to depression or mental health issues – isolation, loneliness, change – are all part and parcel of life for many expats, especially those who are newly arrived. And for the partners, this is often magnified by their other half going to work and immediately finding a role, colleagues, friends – while their accompanying spouses stay at home and need to work all of this out for themselves.

But how many people ever admit they have a problem? Who would you admit it to, anyway? Your partner? Many of us don’t want to worry him or her, as they try and get their head around a new job. Or they’re so desperate for you to be happy that you don’t want to upset them.

Friends? You may be lucky and know one or two people when you first move overseas – but even then, they are unlikely to be someone you feel close enough to do talk about things like your mental health. At least not straight away.

Family? Once a week you have those Skype or Facetime discussions. Your mum wants to see the kids and she wants that tour of the house, loves looking at the tropical foliage in the garden or the city view from the upstairs window. How do you start a conversation with her about how down you’ve been feeling?

Professionals? In some countries this will be possible. In others, it will be a lot harder. It all depends on what is available locally.

This is a difficult subject to talk about – but sometimes that is all we need. Someone to discuss it with. I don’t have any magic answers here except to assure you, if you think you are depressed or do have other mental health issues, that this shouldn’t be something to feel ashamed of. And that you shouldn’t be afraid to seek help. DO talk to your partner – he or she needs to know and it’s better they hear about it early on rather than when it’s gone too far. If you don’t have any local friends you can trust enough to open up to, what about online forums? Mumsnet (as an example) will always have a sympathetic ear – whatever time of the day or night it is. There are also specialist expat coaches or counsellors who work over Skype or via email – often they will have been expats themselves and will have a really good idea about what you are going through.

Moving is said to be one of the most stressful things you can do. Moving overseas can be even harder. Being somewhere new, where you don’t know anything, can’t get around easily, have no routine to your day and possibly don’t even speak the local language, it’s not surprising if you don’t feel your normal self.  For most expats, things will get better as they settle in, get to know more people and start to get some routine back into their lives. For others, it make take a bit longer or they may need to get professional help. But for all of you, just remember to go easy on yourselves. This is a big life change – don’t expect it all to be sundowners and pool loungers. And don’t forget to talk!

 

Have you found it harder than your thought to settle in to expat life? What advice would you give to others, especially those who have just moved or are about to move overseas? Any tips for dealing with depression or low mood generally, even if you are not or have never been an expat?

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52 thoughts on “Depression and expat life: something we don’t talk about enough

  1. I have moved to new locations for work purposes and felt like the world was on my shoulders and very isolated but when you add in a foreign country, language and culture differences it seems as though having someone for the family to process this with would be part of the package. I hope folks can take the risk to ask for help because you are right, talking with someone is the first step and if one does not have that chance then the depression can really deepen. So glad you all have the fb community, as you say it may be a start. Wishing all well in this endeavor.

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    • I think too many people are scared to admit that they’re not “living the dream”. Moving overseas is very rarely the “magic bullet” some people think it is. It’s not a holiday. Baggage comes too (unless it gets lost on the journey over, ha ha) – I found this particularly hard in St Lucia where everyone just assumed we would be sipping cocktails by the pool all day loong! They forgot I still had to look after children and run a household – and do it all in extreme heat and humidity!

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  2. Thanks for posting Claire. Mental illness is rarely talked about and regardless of what the majority say, there is still a “mental illness” stigma in our world. People who have been tagged with a mental illness are treated differently by many people. I, for one am an example of that. I have major depressive disorder. My mom has bipolar, my grandfather (who took his life when I was 9 months old) had depression. There is a major genetic disorder. And then, you add in situational depression, like losing a job, moving, feeling isolated, aging parents, marital issues and teenagers. You add all of this to the list which causes sleep disorders, no energy, you don’t want to be around people. Then there is a moment where you break down. You become someone you never were, it’s like your old self in inside but you can’t let it out. You try to get help, spend thousands of dollars on psychologists, psychiatrists, medicine, hospital visits. Still yet, you are in that place of desperation. The place where the only resolution is to not be on this earth anymore. You want the pain to end. You feel guilty because you can’t be a true friend, a true neighbor, a true spouse or a functioning parent. So, you decide to take too many pills or put yourself in danger. You can’t talk real talk to your friends because they don’t understand what is happening. You feel dead inside. Why put your family through the pain- wouldn’t it be better if you were not here anymore?

    For me, I suffered for 9 months of major depression, which turned into being very paranoid. I could not function. I admitted myself into a mental health care facility ( better know -for crazy people) twice. It didn’t help. It was more depressing being there. Thankfully, I had great friends and a supporting family. They put me in touch with people who have been in my spot. Finally, after trying almost anything, I decided to get ECT (electro shock therapy). After 4 weeks and 12 treatments, I started to come out of my depression. It left me and I still fight memory loss, but I would not trade it for anything. It literally saved my life. God gave me the strength to persevere. I started exercising again, socializing and started team-teaching with my supervisor at my place of employment. I got stronger and stronger, however I started to increase my drinking. I still had situational depression and I was self-medicating with alcohol. Think about it- your depressed and you start medicating yourself with depressants. After 6 months of doing this, continually hurting the people I love, I decided to stop drinking. Guess what- real change occurred. I got stronger and stronger. I stood up for myself. I shared my story with everyone who asked. I was 100%honest with everyone. Unfortunately, some people still tag you as being “mentally unstable,” especially in the work environment.

    I just gave my two weeks notice at Columbia Association because I truly believed they were trying to push me out. They took away classes, didn’t allow me to sub classes. The same managers who loved me before my breakdown now are treating me differently. After I gave my two weeks notice and gave them reasons why, they said to “take the weekend to think about it.” They were very understanding and said that I was a valuable team member and they loved me. “I will hold you letter of resignation over the weekend and take your time to think about it and just let us know on Monday.” I had a renewed sense of mankind. I felt guilty and ashamed for the way I had misconstrued their behavior the past year. It all changed on Monday when I had not gotten back to my manager in the morning. My intent was to continue working for them. She sent me an email at 1:45 stating she had not heard from me so she accepted my resignation. I replied right away asking her to hold it, if it wasn’t too late and could I call her as I was waiting to get a very painful procedure done at the doctor’s office. She did not reply until 5PM telling me it was too late, that all my classes are covered for the next two week and that the resignation was accepted immediately. Oh, and to also return a jacket they gave me to wear into one of their facilities no later than Wednesday. Hmmm- wonder if they would have treated me the same way if I had a shoulder injury or cancer? People- depression can be as bad as cancer- it can take your life. It is a disease growing in your body.

    So, with all that said, to those who are suffering from depression- don’t give up. You are not alone. Persevere. Go to a church that is inviting, exercise even when you don’t want to, don’t drink or smoke or abuse prescription drugs, get involved in a support group, find a friend who really knows you and be in constant communication with him/her. Be 100% honest- I cannot stress this enough. So many people put up a front to the public and then end up taking their lives. Please, Please reach out and don’t give up! You were put on this earth for a reason, people love you, treat it like any other illness. Stay away from negative people or people who do not understand. Remember, perseverance builds character, character builds hope. And the hope can never be taken away from you. You are loved!

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    • Oh Dawn, you made my mascara run! Your story is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. I have had some very negative experiences and my expat experience released previous depression in me about 3-4 months into my time here in the USA. I have had great advice and do as you say – keep away from negative people and situations that bring me back down. It sometimes feels low, but mostly I’ve learned to be positive and shine and that is working for me. The only way is up! Much love to you x

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      • Something like a move to another country can really trigger depression but so few people understand this BEFORE they move. I feel like I am just being negative when I write about these things but it is better to know it’s a possibility before you go than have it happen to you when you are there and alone….

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      • I am always here for you! You are a beautiful woman, inside and out . The door is open to call me or we can always get together!

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    • Thanks for sharing your story Dawn. I have had friends with bipolar and I know how hard it has been for them. It is time we all understood this “hidden” illness better – and were able to accept that it happens to so many people and can happen to us. I hope you are getting the help you need and thanks for all of your excellent advice.

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  3. I realised that I feel much easier now that I can call as much as I want via Viber and FaceTime to my family and friends every day, no limit on how long I talk. It is indeed difficult to find friends straight away, someone you can really share with. Talking to my husband, my mom and my friends abroad – that’s what actually helps me deal with the difficulties.

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  4. Clara- I can certainly vouch for these numbers- I was part of that statistical group.

    Going to Azerbaijan was less hard than coming home for sure. I allowed for the adjustment going but never considered it upon returning.

    However, one aspect that I recognized for myself was burnout during what would become my last 2 years. I would go home on Friday night and have to force myself to go out for a meal on Sunday. I knew that was a sign of overstaying in country so I began the process of planning my return.

    Hardest transition I’ve ever had!

    I’m glad you went ahead and posted this. Someone will need to read this. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, and thank you for sharing your experiences. On reflection I should have out somethinng in the post about repatriation and how hard that can be. How easy it is too feel lonely and isolated even when you are back in the bosom of your family and old friends. That is another discussion that doesn’t happen enough, although I am glad to see it seems to be becoming more recognised.

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    • I agree. I think there’s a wariness to admit moving abroad isn’t going to be this amazing experience. Far better to be realistic. There will be ups but there will also be downs. I’m hoping to do a post soon about how moving abroad is like having a baby. There are so many things no one ever tells you. Or maybe they do but your mind blanks it out 🙂

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  5. All those stories are so touching and sound so hard. Touch wood, maybe I am made differently. While i may face the occassional frustration with all my many moves, serious depression has not been an issue. Having said that, I can see how easy it would have been for me to take that step – from frustration to deprression. I can only offer a thought here. It may indeed sound frivolous to some of you. I can only assure you that I mean it in all sincerity. Please, please learn to laugh – at the situation, at the problems and most of all at yourself. A sense of humour keeps all negativity at bay. Sometimes its the only thing that has kept me sane. We moved 3 countries in 2 years. And just when our stuff arrived and I had almost finished setting up the house, the roof collapsed – the hot water system burst. We had 500 ltrs of boiling water cascading down our home. We made it out by the skin of our teeth. The only way i survived that moment of sheer horror was – well, by writing a long email to friends and family and by trying to turn it into a funny tale. Maybe I should put it on my blog and you all can see what I mean. The other important thing I believe is to accept that there is good in every place we move to. You just have to keep,your heart open to it. And there are worse places and situations people have been in. So thank your stars. Always. No matter what. I would like to end this by asking any of you to please reach out if you need a shoulder. One need not be a spouse, family or a childhood pal to be a friend. I am happy to be yours. One can never have too many friends. Hugs to you all.

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    • I completely agree, laughter can be excellent therapy and sometimes that is all that is needed to turn a situation around. Although obviously sometimes if proper depression or another mental health disorder has set in, then proper outside help is needed. I also think exercise and generally looking after yourself – including making sure you make some proper time just for you can really help bring you out of a low mood too. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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  11. Clara,
    Thank you for sharing this thoughtful piece. I am a former humanitarian aid worker and professional mental health therapist. I’ve seen so many colleagues suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and exhaustion and received no support from their employer and very little understanding from friends and family back home. That is why I started a private practice just for ex-pats and humanitarian workers. I provide mental health counseling for the globally mobile via video conferencing. Please take a look at my website http://www.remoteaccessmentalhealth.com and share with your network.
    All the best,
    Anita

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  13. My depression started within a couple of months after moving to China, but then I met some pther foreigners and was able to adjust to my new life. Then, I had to move to another city where there was only one other foreigner to talk to, and there’s nothing to do in the city. What’s the most depressing is that the local teachers at the school want nothing to do with us, and it’s hard to make friends outside of the school because Chinese is an extremely difficult language to learn. Not to mention that both of us came here as single people not knowing a soul. We have np friends here and no family here.

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  15. So true. I do talk to my partner though. And together we determine what path to take. I think there’s also a difference between something we call depression and real depression. Being confused, upset, sad you left everyone, and frustrated about your situation could be depression, or it could just be the emotions you will likely feel after a huge move.

    I’ve had depression, so now that’s why I talk with my partner, to determine if it’s depression or a week or two-long phase. I actually just asked my doctor about anxiety medication and what the process is (since, you know, I’m in a new country). But I told him that I wanted to see if I could work through it first (basically, if it was a real problem or something to work on. I’m glad I waited, but at least I know the options and take mental health seriously. I will not miss out on any part of my life again. If you’re not sure if it’s really depression, it never hurts to ask your doctor!

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    • It’s definitely not something we should be afraid of. And you are right Jessica, there is a difference between actually feeling depressed and having depression. The lines are easily blurred though so as you say, always worth going to the doctor. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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  16. Thanks Clara! This is just what I needed today, one week in my new country and I kind of feel all the things you’ve described in this post – just like in the beginning when we had moved to Switzerland only this time with a baby, we’re even further away from home and the cultural differences are a lot bigger! Feels good to know I’m not the only one feeling like this and that things hopefully will get better once we’ve moved in to our house and settled in a bit!

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    • I really hope you find like I do that once you settle into life in SA it is a wonderful place to be. A week is no time at all and you know you will have ups and downs over the next few months. But with the weather as gorgeous as it is hopefully you can get outside into the sun every day, which is one of the best things to help improve low mood. X

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  17. I don’t feel good. Something is wrong. I feel stuck in a rut and I don’t know what to do. This is my 14th year living as an expat. I now have a fantastic wife and 2 wonderful kids but feel very lonely and isolated here. I feel so sad at nightime.

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  20. ey important article and echoes a lot of what I regularly think. Thanks for highlighting this. I have had regular bouts of depression over the last 8 years of my expat life. For me it wasn’t the initial move that I found tough, there was a lovely honeymoon phase when everything was exciting. It was actually a few years in when my first child was about 18 months that I realised how lonely I was, how my career had stalled, how I was struggling to integrate and make friends. Luckily I have found a great therapist but it is still tough. My fellow expat friends aren’t always so keen to lend an ear…. I don’t think people really want to hear that someone is ‘depressed’. Or maybe i have the wrong kind of friends here….. and so the vicious circle continues!
    Makes me feel better to know there are others who empathise xx

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