Emotional and Mental Health of the Expat — acknowledging and dealing with feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, and frustration.
Living abroad can be a fun, amazing, and growth-inducing experience, but it’s not all lollipops and gumdrops. There are a lot of of not-so-pretty feelings and states of mind that expats find themselves dealing with. From discussions with others living abroad, especially black women, there are some common threads in our stories. Here are a few of those emotions and ways we’ve found to cope and thrive. It’s truth time.
This is SUCH a common experience which can make or break your transition and adjustment. Should it come as a surprise that being in a different place/space/country can induce feelings of loneliness? Even if you absolutely LOVE your new country, it’s hard not to feel disconnected.
First of all, there’s just missing the familiar. And time zones are a bitch. Then when it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, the family reunion, a milestone birthday/anniversary. Or someone passes away, gets married, or graduates and you can’t make it. That hurts. You don’t experience the Fear Of Missing Out. You just plain miss out.
There’s also the isolation of feeling like (and being) an outsider. I’m ok with being different. But there are so many times when Ghanaians just don’t “get it” and many more times when they even care to. For enough, however this can make you feel crazy, like you’re in the Twilight Zone. Even my husband doesn’t truly understand because as a man of Ghanaian descent, we have completely different lived experiences in this country. And there goes the loneliness. Even when you’re surrounded by people.
How to Deal:
- Find your tribe(s). Because there are so many fewer of “you” in your new environment it’s so important to try to identify and connect with those who are in your tribe. This could mean finding other African Americans, other American millennial moms, others of Caribbean descent, your sorors or frat brothers, fellow alumni/HBCU grads, a faith congregation you can aline with, etcetera. Based on who you are and your interests, connect with others that have similar experiences and backgrounds as you do. You’re all at different stages of learning and adapting and it could be a helpful to get to know others with similar experiences. This can help you feel more connected to what’s familiar and important to you. That new network can be vital to settling in and finding your place in a new and different country.
- Engage in the local community in meaningful and fun ways. Joining an service organization with passions, causes, or concerns that match yours. Or launch an organization or initiative of your own and invite others to partner with you. I love Ghanaian arts, crafts, and textiles so much that I started an online store called The Afrophile. My in-house team and vendors are mostly women. Naturally, all of the merchandise is fair-trade. So now, I own a principle and passion-based company that’s a vehicle to support local people and businesses around the region that I care about. Winning.
No matter how many times to visit a place, or how many hours of internet research you do, or how many investigative trips you’ve made to the country you move to before relocating, you WILL deal with situations that blow your mind in all the wrong ways. This isn’t exclusive to expat life but when you live in a country that’s not the one you’re used to these experiences can really throw you off kilter in large and small ways.
Many of my frustrations come from the socio-economic and gender-biased systems I see in place around me. I love the country I’ve reclaimed as my own, it’s really disheartening to see the manifestations thereof.
I also get frustrated with city life. It’s loud and filthy. The traffic is terrible. Cost of living is high. The useless bureaucracy and the know-it-all arrogance of even the dumbest men are enough to make a woman like me lose it.
Let me just be truthful, I am mostly shielded from real “harm” because of my class, complexion, and status as an expat but these things start to compound and that’s where the unraveling begins.
How to Deal:
- Do what you love! Try to maintain the hobbies and activities that made you happy back home. Or even identify something new that interests you and can develop into a passion. Join a running club. Start a blog and write your heart out. Learn photography. Shoot, go to a paint and sip! Just try to be around people, places and things that truly bring you joy, encourage growth, and enable you to execute you passion. And what’s a better distraction than happiness?
- Escape your city/town and explore another place within the country. Maybe you just need the stimulation and conveniences of the city. Or perhaps escaping an urban environment and decompressing in nature is just what’s needed.
- Travel to another country besides your current country or home country. This too can help you appreciate your home, or it may even open your eyes to new possibilities in places that aren’t so far away.
This kind of goes hand in hand with isolation and frustration. I’ve felt isolated and lonely then began to feel frustrated. Other times I’ve been frustrated about something, then began to feel isolated and lonely. I know this happens to so many of us expats.
All of a sudden, everything back home starts looking REAL good. Chipotle. Consistent electricity. Fast and affordable internet. Traffic rules. Rules in general. Cheap airfare. Target. Your old apartment. Efficiency in government. Your old job. Dating prospects (for my sexy singles). Any and everything. Hey homesickness.
How to Deal:
- Identify tech tools that work for you. FaceTime is sometimes a go-to to long-distance communication but slow, inefficient, or costly data rates may make less than desirable for many. for many more. WhatsApp, specifically their voice messaging feature is an excellent low cost and effective communication tool. You may not be able to see your bestie’s face but you can definitely hear her voice and go back and forth with your shenanigans consistently! And Facebook. Period. Though millennials like to shun Facebook but for real, where are the Grands and the Godparents going to get consistent and efficient doses of all that the little ones are up to? (So to our non-expat peers, don’t think us lame for posting every little thing. What’s pride got to do with it?)
- Visit home, soak, indulge, then come back. The grass is always greener on the other side, even when you’ve been on both sides already and should know better! Go “home”, indulge in creature comforts, soak up the love of family, visit familiar places, and catch up with what’s new and what you’ve missed. For better or for worse, this will put things into perspective and help you remember why you made the move you did in the first place.
- Invite folks from back home come visit you. Sometimes all you need is to spend QT with folks from back home even if they have to come to you. Show them around. Brag about the place. That pride you feel bringing them to a landmark or your favorite restaurant may be what’s needed to remind you of what you love about your new home.
But by far, I feel the best thing we can do as expats (and in life) is to understand the power of the Serenity Prayer. THIS is paramount! Know what you can’t change and try to be ok with that. Be courageous and change what you can. Be wise enough to know the difference.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
*Disclaimer: What I’m suggesting are tips to help the expat adjust and cope with life in a foreign country and the ensuring mental and emotional challenges. These may be helpful, but please be open to seeking help from a licensed psychologist, therapist, or counselor. Mental health is real!