Over the past few months I have been publishing posts about expat depression: a serious and seriously overlooked (in my opinion) issue that affects a lot more people than most realise. I myself learnt a lot while reading and then writing about the responses to a survey I did on the subject – it gave me a wonderful opportunity to reflect not only on my own situation but also on that of many, many expat friends I have known and still know all around the world.
I have now come to the end of my series but I didn’t want to finish without a summing up: links to all the posts and a conclusion. But this doesn’t mean for a moment I have finished with the topic – it’s something I feel I will come back to, will be a backdrop to many of my posts, will always be there when I think and write about expat life. I hope that by posting on this topic I have been able to help others, even if it has just given them an opening to discussion or a pause to reflect. As always, comments and feedback are welcome.
I started the series with an introduction to the topic, explaining the reason I had decided I needed this series was because an older post about depression I had written last year was one of my most read blogs – getting hits on it almost every day. This proved to me that a lot of people were putting the words “expat” and “depression” together into search engines – and looking for help.
What is expat depression?
In my second post, I tried to unpick what was actually meant by the term “expat depression” but realised in the end that although there definitely is such a thing as “situational depression” caused by the situations we find ourselves in, depression is depression however or whatever it is caused by and needs to be treated accordingly. I did conclude however thar there are definite commonalities amongst expats who fall into the “depressed” camp one way or another and it was these commonalities I wanted to focus on.
When and why does it happen?
My third post started using some of the real-life experiences told to me in the survey I used as a basis for this series. This is where commonalities really started to become apparent. From the shock of the move to isolation and lonliness, loss of identity and control to repatriation – the same causes or at least catalyst of depression came up over and over again. As I said in this post:
Hopefully by recognising possible danger points in the expat cycle, I can help you be more prepared
What does expat depression look like?
Next I asked (and hopefully answered) the question: what does expat depression actually look like, how to recognise it for what it is and thus start to seek the help you need? Again, there were a lot of commonalities in my responses – from very emotional reactions (anger, tearfulness, frustration) to listlessness and feelings of wanting to shut yourself away. Food and alcohol issues were also two themes that came through in the survey.
Overeating or eating unhealthily – one of the possible symptoms of depression.
Could it just be culture shock?
“I definitely knew and understood the concept of culture shock. By this point we had been there almost two years so I think I had gotten over the culture shock part and was resigning myself to the fact that no matter what I did I would never be able to thrive in this environment.”
My fifth post posed the question how to distinguish between culture shock – the emotional roller coaster that many of us go through at the start of a new expat life – and depression. This is a subject I had already tackled in my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide as I thought it was important for people to realise that very intense emotions are likely to be a normal part of their expat experience – but then also to understand when what they are feeling is something more.
Through researching for this post, I reached the conclusion that actually the two are so tightly intertwined that it’s often hard to say when culture shock ends and depression starts. But at the same time I truely believe that a really good starting point for any expat (or expat-to-be) is to read up on and gain a proper understanding of culture shock. We all know ourselves better – hopefully – than anyone else does. So you are in the best place to understand whether what you are feeling is simply down to the stresses of living in a new and alien environment….or whether it’s moved past this and heading into depression.
Having now thoroughly tackled what expat depression looks like and how to recognise that is what it is, I turned to the question of how to help yourself. I did this over the course of two separate posts – the first discussed self-help methods, and the next how to look for professional assistance.
The self-help post had lots of good ideas, from finding a routine to getting a dog. Many people though agreed that these methods should be done alongside seeking the help of a professional such as a counsellor or therapist and the second post discussed the sort of help people looked for and where they found it. I included a list of therapists who specialise in helping people who love overseas in this post.
I wanted to look at what to do if it wasn’t yourself you were worried about but rather a friend, a partner or anyone else you knew in your expat life. We often get close to people very quickly when we first relocate – but still it can be very hard to know when someone needs help because depression isn’s something that gets talked openly about very often. This post talked about how important it can be simply to be there, to invite people out, to talk and to listen to them. Even if you never actually touch on the subject of depression, just being there for someone might be helping them more than you would ever realise.
What about the employers?
My penultimate post in this series (if you ignore this one) looked at the role of employers. The verdict was split as to whether they should have a role at all in this area – especially when it comes to the partners of their employees rather than the employee itself. But after reflecting on this subject, my feelings are that so much of what we experience is tied to the situation we find ourselves in so perhaps the employers should be more aware of this issue? Maybe by being more proactive in this area they could stymie some of the problems before they escalate to the point where problems are going to lead to things like relationship breakdown or even their employee leaving the post. There was certainly a lot of food for thought in this one.
Finally, I felt I couldn’t leave this topic altogether without talking about repatriation. Frequently overlooked as a catalyst for depression, returning to your home country is often said to be the hardest part of relocation. Maybe because people don’t expect to feel this way and are therefore underprepared, maybe because the changes that happen to someone when they become an expat can make returning to your old life very hard indeed or maybe just because it is another flash point in the expat cycle I don’t know. But what I do know from all the informal research I have undertaken in this subject area is that repatriation is something that should be ignored at your peril.
And the conclusion is?
So that in a nutshell was expat depression. Or at least, it was my take on the subject. What can I take away from my experience of writing these posts? That although there certainly is no one-size-fits all approach to an illness like depression, there are commonalities. That we can all help each other just by being aware what others may be going through. Becoming an expat – especially if it is for your first time, and even more especially if you are the non-working partner – can be a difficult and frightening thing. Knowing that you are not alone, that others have gone through and continue to go through the same feelings that you are can e a huge help. On top of that though often what you need is more – and don’t be afraid to seek help from a professional if you think you may be depressed, even if you are not 100 per cent sure. The lines between normal feelings and clinical depression are very blurred so don’t leave it to chance or hope it will go away. Get that help earlier rather than later and then, hopefully, you can start to enjoy your expat life. Most of all though, never be ashamed of what you feel.