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The emotional cost of leaving your country

Dec 1, 2022

With the spotlight on expat depression and tips to combat it

Revised by Sue-Ann de Wet

Leaving your country and adapting to a new country goes hand in hand with several challenges: You have to leave your family and friends behind, say goodbye to your country of birth, adapt to a new environment (which is a culture shock in itself), and the unforeseen and hidden costs associated with emigration, to name just a few challenges. All these challenges also have an emotional impact on you.

Here we tell you more about expat depression and how to combat it.

Expat depression is more than just culture shock. Time heals many ailments, but expat depression clings to a person. This condition involves a considerable period of despondency after emigration – so much so that sufferers may need professional help.

Admit that you are struggling

The first step to victory in the battle against expat depression is honesty: You must admit that you suffer. Often, expats feel guilty about their deep yearning and longing for the familiar. They do not necessarily want to admit to family and friends that they are suffering, especially not to those in South Africa. Acknowledge that you are struggling and allow your family and friends to help you.

Signs of expat depression

A big overseas move has consequences. How does one distinguish between the initial culture shock and something as serious as expat depression? Well, the biggest difference is that expat depression is a temporary ailment. While culture shock finally blows over, depression clings to an expat like wet clothes.1

Expat depression can be recognised by the following signs:1

  • You struggle to get out of bed in the morning and perform everyday tasks.
  • Sleep disorders: You either have insomnia or sleep far too much.
  • Eating disorders: You either have no appetite or tend to overeat.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts

Please note: The observation of these signs is not equivalent to a formal diagnosis. If you recognise some of these signs in your own life, we advise you to get professional help.

Five tips to fight expat depression

1. Start building a support network

Join a club and/or church as soon as possible after you arrive in your new country so that you can systematically build up a support network. Find out if there are any existing support groups for foreigners in your area and join them. These groups can provide excellent emotional support.

Don’t hide and isolate yourself. Visit people and do things that can make you feel better. Discover new places to eat, beautiful landscapes and cute shops, but also remember to start establishing a routine.

Visit AfriForum Worldwide’s World_Guide to locate a church, club or expat business in your area. Networks are not only there for businesses; they are also a valuable way to build a support base for those days when the longing for the familiar becomes too much.

2. Return to your roots

However, as you begin to reach out, remember where you came from. So, keep your roots by implementing your native country’s traditions and customs in your daily routine. Now and then, light a fire or take a sip of the rooibos tea your mother sent along. Also, celebrate commemorative days such as Heritage Day and Mother Language Day to connect your heart anew with your country of birth.

3. Stay in touch

Life can get hectic! Between your work, social obligations and time differences, staying in touch with the family online can be challenging. However, for your emotional well-being, it is essential. So, emigrate with a plan: Agree with your family in advance on which days of the week will suit them to make calls and stick to the agreed times as much as possible.

4. Give yourself time, but also make time for yourself

It takes time to adjust to life abroad. It can even last up to two years!2 Be patient with yourself and your family and enjoy the little moments. Agree with yourself to do one thing every day just for yourself. Get outdoors – go for a walk or jog in nature. Also, focus on your physical health. Pay attention to your eating and sleeping pattern.

5. Get professional help

However, if you realise that the depression worsens over time, we suggest you see a doctor. Rest assured that you are not making a mountain out of a mole-hill – your hardship is a valid problem.

According to Charl Fourie, a clinical psychologist in Tasmania, Australia, the same stigma is no longer attached to mental health as years ago when he was still living in South Africa. Mental health issues are not stigmatised in New Zealand, the US, Britain or Europe. No one in those countries will look at you funny if you visit a psychologist. He suggests you find the helpline number in your new country in advance and make it available to your children if they are old enough. Inform those looking after your children or working with them in the new country that you are immigrants and ask them to watch their mental health.

There is hope for a solution. So, take heart. Remember, you are never alone and can reach out for help.

Reference list

  1. Dolinova, D. How to Deal with Expat Depression. International Citizens Group. Available at https://www.internationalcitizens.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-expat-depression/ Accessed on 1 November 2022.
  2. Asian Tigers Group. 2021. Tips when starting out in a new country. Available at https://www.asiantigersgroup.com/tips-when-starting-out-in-a-new-country-feel-at-home-abroad-sooner/ Accessed on 1 November 2022.

ALSO READ: Emigration: The costs of leaving South Africa

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