Living abroad is a wonderful experience. It opens your horizons. It offers you the chance to experience unique and sometimes unusual encounters. It’s an opportunity for personal, professional and financial growth and it allows families to grow together too.
But it’s also a challenge. You all have to adjust physically, culturally and psychologically – and this can take time. The road to adjustment can be fraught with unexpected obstacles, which may have a negative effect on the psychological wellbeing of both you and your family.
How can living abroad present a risk for the expatriates’ mental health?
The issue of identity is central to the experience of living abroad. It raises many questions, for example: Who am I now? How can I feel good being myself and adapt at the same time? Have I got the personal resources necessary to cope? How can I use this new experience abroad to become the person I’d like to be? Living abroad speeds up changes in identity, sometimes before the expatriate has recognized and assimilated those changes him or herself!
Interpersonal relationships are another important aspect of living abroad. Relationships are often challenged through expatriation. Living abroad means taking a break from everything you previously knew. You may feel a void in the absence of loved ones and deeply miss the places and people you’ve left behind. You also have to rise to the challenge of building new, satisfying relationships. If you are no longer nourished by relationships, you can feel emotionally fragile.
What makes expatriates feel uncomfortable and ill at ease while living abroad?
These factors vary according to an individual’s personality type, but the primary factor is stress. Managing major changes related to culture, language and unfamiliar surroundings, and adapting to a new life in a constructive way can be extremely stressful as well as reduce confidence and self-esteem. Even the most mundane tasks of daily life can seem difficult, like making a telephone call.
It takes a lot of energy and effort to set up in a new country. After an intense period of settling in, you may experience an emotional void in the absence of the familiar things you’ve left behind. A feeling of nostalgia and even sadness may engulf you. Grieving takes its course, and a certain degree of depression is normal at this stage. Everyone knows it’s impossible to be happy all the time! However, a feeling of overwhelming depression lasting more than two weeks is alarming and should be addressed.
What can expatriates do to avoid feeling uncomfortable or ill at ease?
People should avoid moving abroad to escape their problems. Their problems will only come back - perhaps even worse than before. The classic illustration of this can be seen in the high divorce rate of expatriates. People who plan to move abroad should be clear about things and plan for their departure on all levels. They should carefully evaluate what may be lost and gained through the experience, what fears they have, and what projects they have in order to set up a successful move. It’s important to consider each person as an important player in this life experience (both adults and children) to create a positive dynamic and get everyone involved.
How can you support expatriates who are going through a difficult time?
Life is full of surprises and new developments. Everyone goes through ups and downs and everyone – expatriate or not – has moments in life when they need support (from a friend, a medical professional, a psychiatrist, etc.). You need to be able to analyze the degree of difficulty a person is experiencing in order to provide appropriate help, especially if medication is necessary (in the case of depression for example). When you notice that someone you care about is not doing well, you should try to understand the depth of the problem, and find out if they want help. Never deny the mental distress of a loved one.