I am running a series on my blog at the moment about expat depression – posting roughly once a week on the subject and working my way through what it looks like, when and why people might experience it, the association between depression and culture shock, and how people have helped themselves get over it. I can’t pretend this has been an easy topic to blog about – it certainly isn’t what people associate with the expat life.But I believe it is probably the most important topic I have ever tackled – and this is why.
Just over a year ago when my blog was still fresh and I hadn’t even published my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I wrote a post about depression. It was a mental health awareness day back in my home country of the UK, a day when people were encouraged to open up and “talk” about their feelings, to try and knock on the head the stigma that is often attached to mental health issues.
I heard about the Time to Talk campaign via a post in my Facebook timeline, shared if I recall by a former expat who also trained as an expat coach so well understands many of the difficulties faced by those who chose to move abroad. I didn’t have a lot of time that day but the post spoke to me – it stirred something in me. Life can be hard enough at home, but how is it for those who are away from their usual support networks? Yes, our surroundings might be beautiful and interesting and stimulating but actually as we all know life goes on. And doesn’t it make it harder when we are unhappy but everyone thinks we should be mightily grateful for our new lives?
So I wrote the post, titling it “Depression and expat life: something we don’t talk about enough”, and the response was incredible. People poured their hearts out in the comments section, it was shared and liked and viewed many times over. But that was just the start of it. As the months went by I noticed something odd. That post was viewed over and over and over. Anyone who blogs knows that most posts have a shelf-life – once you have published, they will usually get a high number of views for a day or two and then things start to trail off. The ones that keep getting the clicks tend to be the ones people are finding through search engines. And this was what was happening here.
My original post about expat depression has been viewed thousands of time – and it gets seen by someone almost every day. So I know there are people out there putting the words expat and depression into Google or other search engines pretty well on a constant basis. And this really told me something.
When most people think about, write about or even read about expat life the first thing that generally comes into their minds is something like cocktail parties, coffee mornings, golfing weekends. Maybe partying in Singapore, business meetings in Brussels, or lying on a Dubai beach. What people probably don’t think about (apart from those of us who have been there!) is normal life carrying on but with more heat. Or worse traffic. Or another language.
What I have realised as I go through my expat life is that generally once you are past the first few months in a new location, life can become very normal. At the end of the day, you still need to shop, pick up kids, go to the dentist, write blog posts for Expat Focus (!). Most of us will enjoy getting to know a new location – we have certainly enjoyed getting to know South Africa. But there comes a time when the excitement of the early days starts to turn into something a bit more mundane. And this is often when your emotions can start to take a real hit.
When this does happen, you are often still not at the point when you have a group of close confidantes to confide in. Yes, hopefully you will have friends (and it is amazing how quickly you get to know people when you are thrown together in this life). But it is unlikely they will yet be the sort of people you can talk to about something like depression. Or, at least, that might be how you feel.
And of course these sorts of feelings don’t just hit new expats. I was contacted by people who had experienced depression years after their original move, often when they moved again or there was a significant change in their life circumstances. And very, very common were people who said repatriating was what hit them hardest.
So I realised that there was a need and I decided to write about it. Not necessarily to provide all the answers – after all, everyone and every situation is different, plus I am not a mental health specialist. But to share the stories of others, to help you feel that what you are going through is very common, that you are not alone. And to share what others have done to help themselves – provide some tools to apply to your own situation. Sometimes just having some ideas, some tactics to work on can help, giving you back a sense of control when all around you seems to be madness.
Like I say, I can’t provide all the answers and I can’t even pretend to be an expert but I hope that even by just sharing the fact that expat depression is a real thing I can help others. I would love to hear your thoughts.
You can read my posts on expat depression on my blog here.