Taking care of your mental health when working overseas
In the first of a two-part series about the challenges of working overseas, we take a look at an important consideration that many people are reluctant to discuss: How to look after your mental health.
Working overseas can be an exciting, but sometimes daunting experience. Although being thrust into a new environment, culture and working practices is not for the faint of heart, there are many upsides though—it can also be a great stress buster, you have the chance to reinvent yourself, become mentally resilient and completely immerse yourself in a new culture.
Mental health is a growing but often overlooked concern. According to the World Health Organization 300 million people are now living with depression—an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015.(1) Some people may think that mental health issues are another person’s problem when in fact it’s estimated that at least 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime.(2) The reality is that mental health issues can strike at any time and any place.
If you’re a working expat, or soon to be one, be kind to yourself as it’s almost inevitable that some stressors will be part of the experience. A study in the 2011 International Journal of Mental Health compared the mental health status of expatriate compared to US domestic workers. 56% of expats who completed the survey reported signs of anxiety or depression, compared with 21% of domestic workers. The survey showed that expats were over 2.5 times more likely to face these problems than their counterparts back home.(3)
The good news is that with a little knowledge and advance preparation, you can be a little more prepared for whatever trials and tribulations life may throw at you.
When working overseas, it’s important to recognize the many potential forms of stress and be sensitive to what your body and mind is telling you. What might cause stress when working overseas? Culture shock could be a factor. You may experience anxiety when you find yourself surrounded by unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells and new ways of thinking. Learning to adapt to a different way of life—whether it be a new language, unfamiliar foods, new styles of relating, different business etiquette—can take time.
The environment you’re moving to could be another factor. Sometimes this environment might be very different from what you’re used to—climate; stability of basic services (water, electricity, internet, etc.); pollution; public sanitation. The expat’s world can often be significantly different to that of the local population—something that may take a little getting used to. Other elements may include safety (or lack thereof); quality of healthcare; the rule of law; differences in religious practices.
Stress can also manifest itself in many different ways. For example, there can be many knock-on effects including the strain it can take on your physical body or supposed coping mechanisms such as alcohol, tobacco or drugs.
A lack of support can cause emotional stress
If you’re feeling low, you don’t have to suffer in silence. Being away from family and friends might be tough and maintaining these relationships may require a little more work, but the good news is that staying in touch is easier than ever before. Social media networks such as Facebook can be a great way of keeping your loved ones and those you care about up to date. If you’re feeling lonely in your new destination, Facebook can also be a way of joining groups or organizations for expat communities. Messenger services such as WhatsApp or Skype can also be a great (and free) way of keeping in touch.
If you feel like you need to speak to a professional—something that can be difficult or impossible when living overseas—online counselling has recently grown in popularity.(4) Websites such as Babylon, BetterHelp or Talkspace offer an opportunity to speak to a licenced counsellor at low cost compared to what you’d pay for face-to-face meetings.
A little bit of stress can be a good thing, but when it gets out of hand it’s best not to ignore it and hope it’ll go away. If you are feeling under the weather, try to notice the signs, cut yourself some slack and take advantage of the many available resources to get the help you need.
(1) World Health Day 2017 Campaign, World Health Organization. Accessed September 25, 2018 <http://www.who.int/mental_health/management/depression/en/>
(2) World health report 2001, World Health Organization. Accessed September 25, 2018 <http://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/>
(3) The Mental Health Status of Expatriate versus U.S. Domestic Workers: A Comparative Study. Published in “International Journal of Mental Health”, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter 2011-12, 3-18. Accessed September 25, 2018 <http://chestnutglobalpartners.org/Portals/cgp/Publications/ExPat%20Mental%20Health%20Paper%20-%20May%202011.pdf>
(4) American Psychological Association article 2017, American Psychological Association. Accessed September 25, 2018 <http://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/02/online-therapy.aspx>