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Focus on expat depression

Sep 20, 2021

The importance of sound mental health is a topic that has become increasingly relevant, and deservedly so. Although there are still stigmas surrounding conditions such as depression and anxiety and its treatment, there seems to be a better understanding about the condition and an increase in people’s willingness to talk about it. Depression suffered specifically by expats has recently come under the spotlight.

Expat depression shouldn’t be confused with general adaptation syndrome, which is a short-term reaction to a major source of stress. Expat depression is clinical in nature and includes symptoms such as low energy levels, headache, pain in the body and stomach problems. It has been reported that between 2014 and 2016 these symptoms have increased by as much as 50% under expats who had moved to China. Janet Visser, an expat who left South Africa four years ago and currently lives in Texas, describes the initial process of trying to adjust as “overwhelming and emotional, a real emotional rollercoaster ride”.

Studies over the last 25 years show that the pressure on expatis much heavier than on those who prefer to stay home. Apart from experiencing normal work demands, they are under extra pressure to make a success of their move overseas on both a personal and professional level. These feelings of depression can have a snowball effect and lead to suicidal tendencies, which is why it is so important to be aware of these symptoms and to take preventative steps.

Five tips on overcoming expat depression

Build a network

“One of the first things I did was to meet my neighbours. I know it sounds stupid, but up to this day I can still count on them,” says Sanet Verster, who has been working in Canada as a medical doctor for the past three years. It can be intimidating to take the first step but as soon as you can put a name to a face, things will start feeling more familiar and you can rest assured knowing there is someone who can help you if you ever have an emergency.

Don’t forget your roots

“It is OK to tell your family and friends that you miss home. It is also important to be honest with your significant other, especially if you start feeling depressed,” says Janet. She loves to make South African recipes whenever she misses home. “There have been times when I decided not to answer a call from someone in South Africa, simply because I felt emotional at the time and I knew they would try to convince me to come back, even if they knew it wouldn’t be a solution.” It is important to get involved with South African networks in other countries, that way you can to still experience a little piece of “home”.

Learn the language

Having knowledge of your new country’s language will be a big advantage. Learning a few key words to start with, and then later adding a few phrases, can make a huge difference in making you feel at home. The way foreign languages are used in shops and public transport systems can feel overwhelming, but a lot of this anxiety can be reduced if you understand some of the language.

Discover and create a routine

There are few things as exciting as discovering new places, so go for it! Explore all the new restaurants, beautiful landscapes and delightful shops, but remember to start establishing a routine for yourself. Find a gym and exercise every day, choose your favourite coffee shop and get your daily fix on your way to work, and decide which is going to be your go-to supermarket.

Plan your holiday

Knowing that there is a holiday to look forward to will make the journey through a snowy winter a lot shorter – don’t be afraid to dream! It’s not always easy to talk with family back home in South Africa, however, being able to talk about an upcoming holiday is a lot of fun. This will ground you and give you something to look forward to.


This article was published on Worldwide’s website 7 November 2019. It is being republished following recent enquiries on this topic.

ALSO READ: What is depression? Everything you need to know

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