Expat Depression – Does it go away?

This is not a happy-go-lucky post, because depression isn’t the most fun thing to talk about. The reality is, living abroad is an incredible experience but it can have its bad days. Sometimes bad months. Sometimes even bad years.

While some people may integrate quickly, make friends easily, and have the ability to get home when they need to – for many expats it takes time to settle in and visiting home often may not be a possibility.

In the early days of this blog I discussed the best ways to embrace the expat life, but the truth of the matter is, it isn’t as easy as following a few steps. I’m eight years into my living abroad adventure, and for the most part I am good. I love living in England, I love my community of friends, I love raising my daughter in a different culture than my own, but I still, after all this time, have my bad days. Bad months. Bad seasons. (I’m looking at you rainy, dreary, English winter.)

There are a million, billion articles out there telling new expats what a wonderful, enriching adventure they are about to embark on, but not many that talk about that pang in your gut that never fully goes away on holidays. They don’t tell you about the constant fears of something happening to family members back home, or the worries you’ll have about getting back if the worst happens. They definitely don’t mention that depression can creep up years later, triggered by a simple phone call with your bestie about nothing in particular.

I wholeheartedly think that living abroad, at least for awhile, is an amazing opportunity that everyone should try if the opportunity presents itself. As with most things in life, positives almost always outweigh the negative. But let’s be negative for a minute. Let’s talk about the stuff nobody else is talking about.

I reached out to other expats and asked them to share their stories about the bad days, as well as the ways they’ve learned to cope and make the most of living abroad.

Uzbekistan to New York City

Thousand and One Lands

Rano of Thousand and One Lands

“New York was a dream, that came true. For the first three weeks I stayed in a hostel and it felt like I was on vacation: I could not help but smile all the time when I walked the narrow streets of West Village or biked through Central Park. The time passed, I moved to my own apartment, I explored every single corner of the city, I tasted all the typical American food, I visited every single dive bar in my neighborhood and got more or less handy at my job. When the novelty wore off, I realized that the world in this part of the globe is no different to the one across the ocean and the only difference was that my friends and family were not with me. I was not homesick yet, but I felt incredibly lonely. I could not relate to my new friends because of the cultural differences and their busyness (which apparently is a self inflicted disease in New York) and Skype and WhatsUp were not able to relay the jokes and hugs we usually share in my family. Europeans tend to be more laid back and observant, they have smaller social circles but their connections are deeper and more personal than they are in America, which made it even harder for me to assimilate. “

“I don’t have a recipe to deal with expat loneliness. I joined social clubs and expat groups on social media and tried to attend as many events as possible. But with expat groups you never know if your newly found friend is here for good or might be leaving the country in a year. Strong friendships take years to form and you can’t really force it, so while the expat clubs did help me meet like minded people and alleviate loneliness, those friendships were unstable and fleeting. “

“On the other hand, the experience I got from New York was invaluable. New York does not care about you, but it cares about your business. In the end I came to acceptance of loneliness and refocused myself onto my work. I started my own blog, made hundreds of professional contacts, enriched my resume, learned how to live on a tiny budget in one of the most expensive cities in the world – essentially, I gained more experience than in any of the previous years and became a well rounded, independent, creative and proactive person. ”

“Expat life can be fun and exciting – the key is to have lots of vacation time so that you can see your family often or just move with your boyfriend. Both were not an option for me so I left the city after two years of being an expat. I never looked back since then. New York is still the greatest city on Earth, but now I’d rather be a tourist there. ”

{Rano is an aspiring blogger behind Thousand and One Lands. She was born in Andijan, a small village-like town on the south-east of sunny Uzbekistan. Having inherited nomadic spirit of her nation and insatiable desire to see the world, she visited over 20 countries and worked in New York as an expat. Right now she lives in Moscow, one the world’s greatest cities, but never misses out on opportunities to travel and write insightful articles about her experiences.}

USA to Chiang Mai

d travels 'round

Diana of d travels ’round.

“I’ve talked to — and known — so many people who think making the move to become an expat will make them happier. I can understand the appeal. A new country! A new language (maybe)! New people! New adventures! This is all true. When I first moved to Chiang Mai, I saw everything with new eyes. Here was this entire world I was fortunate enough to have the ability to uncover. But, being an expat isn’t always easy. Some places — especially when there are language barriers — make it difficult to meet and make friends.”

“I found that the biggest challenge as an expat was friendships. People came and went so quickly that by the time I settled into a routine, the routine was changing. As someone who has had bouts of depression my entire life, living in Chiang Mai did not make me immune. It actually exacerbated it. After a good friend of mine passed away, I began to have paralyzing anxiety attacks and was terribly depressed. Instead of wallowing though, I tried to help myself. I started acupuncture procedures. I treated myself to massages. I talked to friends and family. I talked to my little community of people in the city.”

“I find the best way to overcome depression as an expat, though, is to take a walk. To take a meaningful walk. Try to open your eyes and explore the city a new. Relish in the reality of where you are. Do something nice for yourself. Take a little trip. Depression abroad is never easy, but find people there who can support you and build a network. Get involved in something. Give back. And, if you need it, find a doctor you can communicate with and go and talk to a professional.”

{Diana is an American expat currently living in Madrid. She is author of the blog d travels ’round where she writes about her adventures and experiences living abroad.}

Rome to New York to London

Rome, New York, London, World

Valeria of Rome, New York, London, World

“I still remember the first breakdown I experienced as an expat in New York City. On that day, I had moved into my new room in an apartment shared with five other people, and as soon as I unpacked and sat on the bed, I felt this terrible urge to cry. I kept thinking “what the hell am I doing in this expensive, minuscule room, in this chaotic city that sucks the air and money out of me?” I called my mom and wanted to move back home so badly. But I didn’t.”

“I learned and am still learning to cope with homesickness and expat depression slowly, with many ups-and-downs but a strong, underlying belief that I really want to prove to myself that I can do it. I sought professional help but also learned to help myself. I go for walks, look up events and activities, and very seldom allow myself to stay home and feel miserable (although you do need to embrace sad moments sometimes, and it’s ok). I search online to find groups that share my interests (for example, I belong to many groups of international young women). I give myself something to look forward to, whether it’s trying out a new restaurant or going on a day-trip or watching a good movie. And most importantly, I learned to be kind to myself and to talk to friends and family. You’d be surprised how many people experience the same challenges, and although they can’t fully help you, they can give you a hug, and that always feels nice.”

{I’m Valeria, an international expat born in Rome. I lived in New York City for three years and have recently relocated to London. You can find me at Rome, New York, London, World, where I blog about my travels and the pleasant and unpleasant surprises of life as an expat.}

You Are Not Alone

Never forget, you are not alone. Being homesick, experiencing culture shock, and having trouble integrating into a new country is entirely normal. If you feel isolated reach out to local expat groups on Facebook or community groups in your local area. Many people will tell you to make local friends and avoid expat groups for faster assimilation, and while there is certainly some wisdom behind this, I understand that in some countries this is much easier said than done.

Do what works for you. The most important thing is that you talk to someone if you are feeling depressed. Don’t feel like you need to put on a brave face to show everyone back home what a good job you are doing. Be honest with your friends, family, or partner, and let them know how you are feeling.

If you think your depression has become serious, you may want to contact a mental health professional.

Information and Support Resources

(Please contact me if you have additional resources to add to this list.)