Proactive Mental Healthcare For Expats: How To Look After Your Mental Health Abroad
by Kelsey Hoff
Moving abroad is a lot of work and, understandably, certain details tend to take precedence in the months and weeks before getting on a plane. The to-do list is endless, as you are not only starting a new job, but also beginning a new life in a foreign place. With the chaos of submitting required paperwork, establishing housing, negotiating work contracts, and managing the needs of the family, it is of no surprise that many people arrive in their new country already tired and not in the most healthy place physically or emotionally.When it comes to mental health and living abroad, intentionality is of the utmost importance, as other pressures will always be present and take precedence unless priorities are established ahead of time. I recommend starting to consider your mental health far in advance to actually leaving, as the odd and ends tend to pile up within the last six weeks and mental health is likely to be put on the side burner. Furthermore, the self-awareness that you can gain and patterns that you have established in your home country are essential to setting yourself up well in your new environment.
Below is a guide for assessing your mental health needs before you leave, and then taking action to carry out your needs once you arrive.
At least 3-6 months before you leave
If you have a pre-existing condition and are on medication, it is really important for your psychiatrist to know about your travel plans and the new life that you will be living. Ask for perspective about how your medications may affect you in a different environment; make sure that you understand your medications well. Also, find out if you are able to be in contact with him/her while overseas and have a plan for how to do this if the need arises. They may be able to write a report for you in order to have continued care with another provider or offer teleservices.
If you are not currently seeing a counsellor or therapist, book several appointments with the intention of coming up with a mental health plan while abroad. Many counsellors also provide online counselling, so you may be able to continue working with them while overseas. Especially if you have a pre-existing condition, a counsellor can help you understand the nuances of your condition and come up with an action plan for adjusting to a new context.
1-3 months before you leave
Spend some time thinking about your current life in your home country and your mental health. Answer these questions in a journal:
• What do you know about yourself and when you feel the best mentally and emotionally?
• Think about those times where your mental health took a dip – what was happening at that time? What can you learn from it?
• What are those ‘must dos’ in your life? For example, certain types of exercise, foods, routine, etc.
• What do you do for self-care in your home environment? What is it about these activities that are rejuvenating?
• What types of activities do you find draining? What is it about these activities that make them draining?
Then research mental health resources in your new country and compile a list of possibilities for counsellors/therapists, psychologists/psychiatrists, or related organisations which provide workshops or other forms of support.
Make sure you also research what is available in your new home that corresponds with what you do that makes you feel like yourself. It is likely that you will not be able to fully know what is available until you arrive; however, getting a general idea of what is possible can set you up to arrive with some ideas already brewing.
Once you have moved
So, you have taken the leap and have now arrived in your new location. Your house is set up, you have started your new job, and now you need to establish a healthy self-care and mental health routine. The intentionality that you utilized before going overseas is only beneficial if you follow it up with equal intentionality once you arrive and settle in.
Now is the time to pull out your journal where you answered the questions above and use it as a guide to figure out what you need to do.
On a new page, answer these questions:
• What have you been noticing about yourself over the past weeks as you have left your old life, arrived, and settled in?
• What has been going well? What has been challenging?
• What are those ‘holes’ in your life – as in, what do you miss about your old life? • Look at your list of ‘must-dos’ from before: Are you doing any of those? If not, how do you feel without them?
Take action! The goal is to be proactive, so do what you need to do early, not when everything falls apart. If you need to talk to a counsellor, find one in person or online before you are desperate to talk to one – the same goes for a psychiatrist or psychologist.
I have mentioned self-care several times in this article and I can’t emphasise how important this is when relocating. It is likely that you will find that there are many barriers to self-care in your location, whether due to cultural differences, availability of certain activities, location, and so on. This means that you need to be creative in finding what works for you.
Look at your list from above and ask yourself these questions:
• Where can I find the type of self-care that I prefer?
• If it isn’t available in the same form as your home country, what could be a stand-in?
• What are the barriers to this and how could I adjust to these barriers?
Care for your emotional and mental health is not just something to tick off your to-do list, but is an ongoing process of trial and error. The effort that you put into your mental health will go a long way in helping you to be a happy and well-adjusted expat, as well as setting you up to stay abroad for longer, have more enriching experiences, and decreasing the likelihood of burnout.
About The Author
Kelsey Hoff is a Canadian therapist who lives as an expat in Amman, Jordan. She has a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy and has an online therapy practice. She provides professional counselling services online to expats all over the world, such as humanitarian aid and development workers, embassy workers, international teachers, business people, students, and more. She is passionate about supporting travellers as they navigate the exciting, yet challenging, dynamics of overseas life and is always amazed at the drive and potential of the human spirit. You can get in touch with Kelsey on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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