Living abroad is often a dream come true, but it is also a great leap into the unknown that can turn into a nightmare. Because it upsets our habits and certainties, your new life abroad (or expatriation) can have a strong impact on our mental health. Here are a few tips on how to leave with peace of mind... and stay that way!
According to the study "The Mental Health Status of Expatriate Versus US Domestic Workers", published in 2018, expatriate employees are more at risk of developing mental health and addiction problems than their peers back home. It found that three times as many expatriates as US-based workers expressed feelings of being trapped or depressed. In addition, twice as many expatriates as US-based workers expressed feelings of anxiety or nervousness. And the pandemic has only added to this already worrying situation. A survey conducted by APRIL International and Expat.com in 2020 showed that 18% of expatriates had already returned to their home country and 38% were thinking of doing so, among other things, to reunite with loved ones.
Being away from family and friends is one of the most common causes of depression among expatriates. In a study by Dr Mitesh Patel of Aetna, 42.8% of expats surveyed cited the loss of a support network as a major stressor. But it is not the only one. A change in diet, varying degrees of weather, the inability to speak the native language and adjusting to different working relationships can all affect an individual's emotional well-being.
In order to avoid disappointment, you can start by preparing for all the changes before your departure. Having a visa adapted to your project not only allows you to enter a country, it is also the best way to be free to move around and to be able to work without fearing the authorities or crooked employers. Another administrative concern not to be taken lightly: health insurance. Having international health insurance means that you don't have to stress about the slightest health problem and that you don't let physical problems set in that can affect your mental health in the long term.
You can also start by travelling as a tourist in the country you want to move to in order to build up a network, start looking for work, learn the language, etc. Knowing your host country also helps to avoid culture shock. Reading books about expats and life abroad, travel guides and discussing with other expats on specialised forums or Facebook groups also helps to know what you are getting into. Stress and uncertainty are inevitable in expatriation, but you can always limit the damage by having a realistic vision of what you will find in your new country.
When things don't go as well as planned, some expats don't talk about it out of shame or denial. Travelling and living abroad is seen as an opportunity, so why complain? This discrepancy between reality and what was expected from the adventure only reinforces the vulnerability of expatriates who face problems in their host country. For example, some people think that they have to accept everything from their employer, because they are not at home, even if it means coming out a little battered and bruised. However, talking to other people about the reality of what you are going through is essential to take a step back and relax.
But in order to talk, you need to have attentive ears around. A good thing to do, when you arrive in a new country, is to get in touch with groups of expatriates already present in the country. Of course, this is not the best way to learn the local language, but it allows you to talk to people who have already been there. Taking part in a sport or cultural activity in a group is also a good way to meet people and make friends. Fighting loneliness is one of the secrets to psychological health when you are an expatriate.
More and more psychologists are specialising in the follow-up of expatriates. With Skype, WhatsApp and telemedicine, talking to a mental health professional has become much easier. Even if you live in a country where psychologists are not common, you will always find a sympathetic ear on the internet. For example, you can visit the Eutelmed website or the Psy-Expat network. You can even book a professional on telemedicine platforms (psychiatrists and psychologists can sometimes be covered by your international health insurance).
If you are having suicidal thoughts or are completely overwhelmed by your situation, there may be a helpline in your host country. This is the case, for example, in the USA, England, Japan or Italy. You can also contact your embassy, as some of them have psychologists in their network. In any case, you can certainly be referred to a doctor or to associations. In order to take care of your mental health abroad, you must not be afraid to go to others and talk about what you are experiencing.
Expat.com is the leading platform dedicated to life abroad. With over 3 million members, it provides free information, advice, networking opportunities and services. Its aim: to help you live like a local anywhere in the world!
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