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Real Talk: Moving Abroad Caused Me Struggle with Expat Depression — and Here’s What Helped

February 12, 2023

I realized this week that when I wrote “Things I Have Learned Since Moving Abroad”, I didn’t really touch on all the points why I struggled so much that first year — and maybe I need to clarify. You see, I had no idea that moving to Canada could trigger depression because no one talked […]

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I realized this week that when I wrote “Things I Have Learned Since Moving Abroad”, I didn’t really touch on all the points why I struggled so much that first year — and maybe I need to clarify. You see, I had no idea that moving to Canada could trigger depression because no one talked about it. I’ve since found out that expat depression is an incredibly common mental health challenge associated with the stresses of global relocation. In fact, I found that our recent move to Calgary triggered my depression again. Isolated and lonely, again, regardless of the fact that I actually wanted to be in Calgary. I knew I had to do something — here’s what helped.

What is Expat Depression?

Prior to moving to Canada, I had struggled with homesickness when I first moved away from home to study in another city, Cape Town. But it felt nothing like how difficult it was after a year living abroad, away from friends and family. Depression isn’t the same as culture shock or homesickness, however issues like culture shock or feeling extremely homesick can (and did) contribute to developing depression.

Keep an eye out for the warning signs of Expat Depression:

  • Loss of interest and pleasure in previously enjoyable activities
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Concentration difficulties or indecisiveness
  • Insomnia (being unable to sleep) or hypersomnia (sleeping excessively)

1. You need to focus on creating a support network ASAP!

The loss of a support network is one of the main difficulties identified by most expats and it’s the thing I struggled with the most. I felt extremely lonely after moving to a country where I had no one to discuss matters of personal importance or turn to for support. Initially, I found myself withdrawing, with a strong urge to socially isolate myself from people in my new city because when I did spend time with them, the culture-shock was painfully obvious (and TBH, it made me miss my friends back home more).

But I really don’t feeling like going out…

The problem with avoiding social situations with new people is that I only made the situation worse when I needed to socialize. There’s no quick-fix to settling into your new life, and part of integrating into your new country and culture is sitting uncomfortably in the unfamiliarity of it all to get to the point where it does feel familiar and safe. Delaying the inevitable does not help and it might be useful to take advantage of your initial honeymoon phase to set up a good support network. That said, honour your necessary ‘me-time’ as well. It’s a balance.

How does one set up and maintain meaningful relationships in a new city?

The thing we all struggle with as adult expats: making friends. So, how does one actually make friends? Well, volunteering in your community is generally a good start. I’ve also reached out to others on Facebook groups in my area to meet up for coffee, or go to a yoga class together. They key is to find things you enjoy and you will likely find people who you relate to. I’ve noticed that when it comes to social contacts, more is better, so don’t turn down an opportunity to meet new people — you just never know who you’re going to click with!

Set up an S.O.S. alert with friends!

My closest friends back home know exactly when to push me a bit further to socialize and when to respect my personal space. Although this isn’t something that can be formed overnight; find a friend nearby who you can trust to help you avoid an isolation trap. If you don’t feel that they are able to decipher when to push you or when to back down, come up with a word to use that can signal what you need. Can’t think of a word? Use an emoji! 🍍

2. Talk to your Partner about how he or she can help

You know yourself best, so tell your partner what they could do to help you get through this. Whether it’s just leaving you alone on particularly hard days, helping you find a therapist, or giving you some tough love and making you get ready for the day, there’s bound to be something that will help you get better.

Communication is alway key…

Whether or not you partner is struggling as much as you are, you always have to keep up open communication in order for them to understand how you are feeling and why you are reacting a certain way. Depression can cause a decrease in desire, difficulty orgasming, and a lack of pleasure during intercourse. In addition, mental health problems often negatively impact interpersonal relationships, meaning that intimacy between you and your partner may be off the table for other related reasons.

3. Getting a therapist was the best thing I could have done — maybe it will be for you too!

The gist of what I told myself for years about any negative emotions, including the sudden passing of my dad, was to just deal with it. I know, I know hardly the healthiest way to cope. But it had become a learned coping mechanism that I thought would get me through the expat blues. Surprise: it didn’t. I realized I needed actual help which included seeing my family physician and finding a psychologist. Three sessions in and I already feel like it’s the best money I’ve spent!

Is Therapy right for me?

You should always feel able to ask for advice and treatment if you are concerned about your mental health. If you’re feeling something you don’t understand or can’t manage, get some help. You should know that you’re not alone and you will not feel like this forever. I recommend reaching out to your doctor or setting up an appointment with a licensed therapist or counsellor. Getting help is a sign of strength, and you deserve to feel well.

4. Physical Health and Mental Health go hand-in-hand

When I am feeling depressed or overwhelmed, exercise is usually the first thing to go out the window when it really should be a priority. Exercise can boost your mood and release endorphins, even if only a couple times per week.

Do you know a friend who’s going through a hard time?

When you want to help your friends, it’s best not to assume that someone will ask for help directly if they need it and instead be proactive about offering assistance. 

If you feel your homesickness is becoming more like anxiety or depression, please seek advice from your doctor.

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I made made the move from South Africa to Canada in 2015. It's been six years of highs and lows. Now I'm a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant (RCIC) to help the others make the move, too!

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