It is widespread for expats to lack the proper mental health care coverage abroad. Some locations even lack access to mental health professionals and institutions for everyone, not just expats. And even if you end up in a place where counseling is available, like a school in case you are studying abroad, it’s most likely only going to be available in a different language or culture from your own.
Regardless of how great or how bad your situation is abroad, there are other things you can do that can help with preventing and coping with expat depression.
Why expat depression goes unnoticed
Depression caused by moving away from home and to a new country can be tough to recognize. The typical mentality about working abroad is that it has to be the most exciting lifetime opportunity. This, in turn, usually causes expats to feel like they have “no right” to be depressed. It alienates them because they think family and friends at home won’t understand if they are unhappy. But while an international move can be fascinating and the introduction to a new culture can be wonderful, it can also come with feelings of isolation and alienation. It can create a feeling that you don’t belong. This is why you will probably need to learn some skills which will help with coping with expat depression.
The most common cause of expat depression
One of the most common causes of depression in expats is the loss of an established support network. An expat often has to leave behind their family and friends and start to build a new support network from nothing. If you have a close relationship with people in your home country, it can be hard to suddenly be separated from them. Having a solid support network is a significant resiliency factor. Making new friends can be tricky even in your home country when you’re just trying to meet new people. However, it’s especially hard in a whole new country.
A big part of this difficulty can come from a language barrier. In most scenarios, expats don’t share a language with the residents of the new country. This can make it harder to get close to people. Even if you can speak the language of your host country, there’s still no substitute for the comfort of your native tongue. When everyone around you speaks a different language from what you think of, you can start to feel estranged.
Expat depression symptoms
The thing that mostly separates expat depression from the regular type is its cause. People with depression often suffer from a feeling of hopelessness and fatigue, and they usually become uninterested in things that used to bring them joy. It doesn’t necessarily mean you feel sad. On the contrary, a lot of times, people say that depression makes it hard for them to feel much of anything. When you are experiencing a mild depressive episode, it might just feel like everything is gray. However, people in this state are still able to go to work and take care of themselves. More moderate or severe depression may look like this:
- Having trouble with finding the motivation to get out of bed or do everyday tasks like washing, getting dressed, and leaving the house;
- Having trouble sleeping (insomnia) or sleeping too much (hypersomnia);
- Having no appetite or binge eating;
- Abusing substances such as alcohol or drugs;
- Having intentional or intrusive thoughts of suicide.
Just like any other form of depression, when expat depression becomes severe enough, it can seriously diminish your quality of life. It might even make you doubt whether expatriating was a smart idea in the first place.
Coping with expat depression
The good thing is that, just as the characteristics of expat depression are very similar to those of other kinds of depression, the ways of dealing with expat depression are similar, too. The main differences are in access to mental health care. This, of course, differs country by country. Many insurance companies have a mental health line that you can contact to get started. Some even offer special assistance designed just for expats. Let us go through some of the basic ways to ward off depression or to start to feel better.
Tip 1: Get the right amount of sleep
Expat burnout has been increasing, and the most significant part of the burnout phenomenon is skipping sleep to work. Burnout and sleep deprivation leads to instability and mood inconsistency, which worsens depression. Try a sleep schedule that gets you 7-9 hours every night. Depression can also cause hypersomnia, so having a strict sleep schedule is very important.
Tip 2: Eat mindfully
While coping with expat depression, it is very common to experience a change in appetite. Some people experience a loss of appetite. Others experience the opposite, which is binge eating or emotional eating.
Sticking to a more balanced diet, and getting enough nutrition, can help your body even out its emotional cycles.
Tip 3: Avoid alcohol
Addictive behaviors, like heavy alcohol use, are extremely common in expats. Abuse usually starts as a way of connecting with new people, finding something to do, fitting in, or just keeping up with your workplace’s cultural norms. But alcohol use can very quickly become a way to escape painful thoughts and feelings. And like that, it can turn into an addiction. Experts from Bright Futures Treatment Center Florida suggest turning to calmer environments and activities to meet new people as a form of prevention. Things such as cafés or community centers are great options for meeting people who are not as interested in substances such as alcohol. Getting a social circle of people who prefer being sober as soon as possible is really important.
Tip 4: Limit stress
Moving to a new country gives way to a lot of stressors. If you feel like all of them are becoming overwhelming, a good idea is to see which ones you can reduce or eliminate. Most often, these are the ones that don’t have anything to do with your move directly.
Tip 5: Call a friend
Those dealing with expat depression usually find that a big part of it can be attributed to the loss of friendly support. If you have the means to stay in touch with people who supported you at home, utilize them. Figure out when you’re both awake for a call, or start a group chat with your friends. If you manage to find them, fellow expats will also understand the need for a shoulder to cry on or a friendly ear.
Tip 6: Exercise from time to time
Often when you’re depressed, the last thing you want to do is go to a gym. However, exercise is the most consistently helpful thing when it comes to fighting depression. It helps fight the physiological causes of depression while also giving you a consistent routine which has been shown to have a great influence on reducing depressive mood. Make sure to stick with your fitness routine even if you travel a lot.
Tip 7: Seek professional help
Of course, if any of this feels too overwhelming, it’s okay that it does. You can always look into talking to a professional. If you have any kind of health insurance plan, you can ask your insurer to provide you with a list of recommended institutions or therapists. If you are with the local health care system, you will probably need to ask your general practitioner or family doctor for recommendations. Remember to try and ask for therapists who specialize in coping with expat depression. There’s no shame in needing help and having someone to talk to.