In previous posts on this subject I have talked about how you can help yourself – from simple self-help methods like talking to someone, exercise or finding a new focus, to seeking professional assistance. In this post I want to talk more about what to do if it is not you who is suffering, if you know others who may need your help and what you can do. This includes people close to you such as a partner or family member as well as friends and those in the wider expat community. In order to help with this post I asked people whether they had helped others, what they had done, how common they felt depression was amongst their own expat community and whether they felt it was more likely to affect the workers or the accompanying partners.
How common is depression within the typical expat community?
I am a trained coach and decided to use the skills to help others. I did have clients who paid but I used the skills with people in the expat community…who just needed a boost, a point in the right direction. I think it is a common thing and it can hit anytime in the expat cycle and for any reason. Nicola M
Statistically there has to have been many people in my community who has depression! I think people just don’t talk about it. Catherine.
Although this is a difficult question to answer as one of the problems with depression or depressive feelings is that people don’t talk openly about it, most of those who responded to this question said they believed depression to be anything from “quite common” to “very common” amongst expats – with quite a few leaning more towards the “very” than the “quite”. Of course it is hard to know exactly what this means as most people don’t walk around with a badge on saying “I am depressed” or even necessarily ever get a proper diagnosis; but without a doubt according to many experienced expats this is an issue that an awful lot of people have had to deal with – probably a lot more than most of us realise.
To be fair though not everyone thought it was common – or at least, any more common amongst expats than non-expats. However even if this is so, what is an issue isn’t just how many people become depressed but how easy (or hard) it is to deal with your feelings when you are a long way from home, your usual support networks and an accessible professional service.
Who is most likely to be affected?
I think it can occur when people stay too isolated, don’t really connect to their community and locals. I would say working people are pretty safe from depression due to their involvement in tasks and social connections. Non-working mothers with small infants would be at risk…if they have no chance to connect to others. Sarah.
Non-workers for sure. Workers have at least 8 hours when they are distracted from their feelings. My only friends in my location are girls in the same situation as me. We often band together. Susanna.
Of those who answered this question almost everyone said they believed non-working partners were more likely to be affected than their working spouses (with the possible exception of people working in very stressful industries or environments like NGO’s/charity workers/health professionals in very challenging circumstances). This was put down to isolation and loneliness, lack of things to occupy themselves with, loss of careers, loss of identity. One described it as a “helpless feeling not to be financially contributing”; another said “I think the trailing spouse gets it more because we suddenly have nothing to do”.
I think it is more common among non-working spouses. Many of us are professionals in our own right and have lost a big part of our identities. Maybe we had “leaned out” of the workforce for what we thought was a short time to care for our family and the expat lifestyle has extended that beyond the timeframe we had envisioned. Rose.
But a note of caution from one respondent, who thought it was probably more common than is realised amongst the working partners too. Probably the majority of people who answered my survey were non-working partners and thus were speaking from personal experience. Most were also women and I believe we are more likely to speak up about this issues. I suspect it is harder for the partner who has moved overseas for a job, possibly uprooting their spouse and family in the process, to admit that things haven’t worked out the way they had expected. This isn’t something I can back up here with facts and figures but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there wasn’t as much hidden or masked depression amongst the working partners as those who are not.
How can we help others?
I listen, go to newcomers coffees, share advice on where to find Western goods, how to cope with local Chinese, how to work within the censorship issue…. Mary
In Mongolia I tried to help a young wife who found herself in a situation…that threw her into a deep depression. We spent many hours talking and crying and I think my experience of depression, knowing the signs as well as knowing the experience of it, was helpful to her. Robyn.
So plenty of people seem to be aware that expat depression is a common thing, how many people have done something about it? This is such an interesting topic as I truly believe the more people there are that are aware, the more who talk about it openly and without shame, then the more people will already be getting help than otherwise. Even in the course of writing these posts I feel I have been able to talk to so many more people than I usually would about this subject – both through the blog and Facebook page and in real life – because I have been able to open up the discussion.
So talking – and just listening – is definitely a thing we can all do and a lot of people have done. This doesn’t have to necessarily be an “open discussion about expat depression” – it could just as well be a conversation which starts with “how are you finding things here?” However, when I think about reaching out to some of my friends (not necessarily the ones here with me in Pretoria but other expats I know in other places) I can’t even imagine how to get them to admit there is a problem. If there is one of course. And that is one of the issues – how do you know if someone needs your help? Are you going to insult them by even a gentle probe?
Nevertheless people did tell me that “listening” was one of the most common ways they have helped others – listening, emphasising, even, as one person described, “giving them space to vent” seems to go a long way. Otherwise, sharing information to help make transition easier, making lunch and coffee dates to ease loneliness and isolation, comparing experiences good and bad are all ways people have found to help other expats. My favourite of all though was the respondent who said she had recommended my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide J
Who else should be listening?
We have talked about helping ourselves, we have discussed helping others within our community but there is another party in this who some believe should be involved and that is your employer (or the employer of your partner). I was interested to hear whether people thought their bosses should be involved in this issue – and if so, what they should be doing. Watch out for my next post on expat depression to find out more.
If you have found this post helpful then please read the other posts in my series on expat depression. And let me know in the comments below whether you have helped others in your expat community and if so how.