Let’s Talk About Expat Depression

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I recently read Dominica’s article and it got me thinking about the frequent ups and downs we expats experience. I instantly wanted to reply to her and say how much I love my expat life, how lucky I feel to have an amazing hometown like Paris as well as an exotic life in Hong Kong with my husband and kids. And then, just as quickly, I didn’t want to reply anymore because after all, life sucks, doesn’t it?
We don’t talk enough about expat depression and that is a huge shame because it’s something most expats go through. Being aware of it, knowing others go or have gone through it can be so helpful. Living abroad is an amazing experience, but it can have its bad days or months. Some may say years.
The worst part about being sad abroad is you feel totally isolated and misunderstood in your new country. You can’t talk to people you regularly see because you dont want to be labeled, “The Depressed One.” And you can’t complain to friends back home because you live the perfect life abroad: beautiful weather, exotic travels and a full-time nanny. How can you be depressed? How dare you be down?!
Some settle in quickly, meet and make friends in a heart beat, and can go home whenever they want or need. For the rest of us, it takes more time—and hopping on the next plane home isn’t always possible.
I love living in Asia, especially Hong Kong, where I’ve been dying to get back to for years. I love my friends here who make me laugh around coffee as much as wine and with whom I bonded instantly. I love that my children are experiencing life in a country that is much more open to different cultures and tastes, instead of staying in France all their lives. But I still have my bad days… weeks.
There are so many articles selling expat life: What a wonderful, fulfilling experience it is; how you should embrace your host country’s culture to truly appreciate it. Not enough prepare you for balancing a foot in one place while the other’s back home. No one teaches you how to cope with the constant anxiety of something happening to loved ones 10,000 miles away. You’re certainly not prepared for sadness sneaking up on you, triggered by a Facetime with your best friend showing off her latest Monoprix purchase. Or simply the absence of the daily phone call. That one hurts, too.
Going out and meeting new people is part of the cure for just-landed-expat-depression. Your mind may say it’s easier to stay in bed or on the couch, but don’t listen. It’s going to be really hard the first weeks. You need to be a rock for your kids because they left their lives and friends behind, too. The working adult usually adjusts more quickly. The one at home (usually the woman, but not always) suffers more from the consequences of expat depression, including issues with alcohol. In expat communities where your social life becomes more active and important (because you don’t have old friends and family to take up your time), it’s common to turn to drinking as a way to cope with negative feelings. Unfortunately, it can lead to a longer-term problem. I’ve known a few people who developed an alcohol addiction while being expats and have been in denial about it for as long as they were abroad.

So after 2 expatriations, many tears and lots of ups and downs, I (and my expat friends) have some advice:

Life goes on, love stays true. If your friends back home are really your friends, your relationships will survive the distance. But check in regularly so you stay connected. Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, etc… there’s no excuse not to keep in touch.
Take it one day at a time. On bad days, just try to focus on one positive thing. Write it down, stick it on your fridge. On really bad days, cook something comforting and read a favorite book. Take a bath. Call your best friend. Whatever soothes your soul.
Have a goal in mind. I fight my bad days with goals and activities. My 2017 goal is to lose weight and be a knockout this summer. Seriously, me, the Frenchwoman who bragged about my gym intolerance actually goes to the gym, does pilates, hikes and counts the minutes spent on the elliptical machine! It’s embarrassing, I know.
Depression is hard but you can beat it. Beat the shit out of it! With help from your new besties, love from your home bestie and, of course, wine. (But not every night.) 
If nothing seems to help and you’re suffering, please do not be afraid to seek a therapist. There are many who specifically deal with expat issues. Ask someone in your online expat group, Google it or speak to your general practitioner for a referral.

Did you deal with expat depression? How did you handle it? Tell us here or on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. And sign up for our newsletter for the best stories for, by and about women.

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About Author

Alexandra Guitelmann

Alexandra Guitelmann is a married Parisienne with three kids. She is a maman bear who loves taking care of her babes but is also an event manager for only the chicest clients and events in Paris.

20 Comments

  1. I hope you relate to this article as I poured my heart into it. Dint hesitate to comment on it, I would love to hear other views. <3

  2. I love your article. Moving to HK 3.5 years ago was a choice for both DH and me, after living and working in Australia for the 10 years. Making new friends was easy in our 20s.

    Despite moving back to ‘home’, it didn’t feel quite right for me. I missed my best friends in Aus. Life is truely not the same. But at least I have my parents and sisters around. My DH never expressed his ‘depression’ but deep down I knew he was finding it hard. Let’s be honest work life in HK isn’t easy.

    3 years on, we are now relocating to the UK due to my DH’s work. Now I get how my husband was feeling. I now fear that I’ll need to make new friends again. Also this time around we’ll have a new born in tow. Going to be a FTM for the near future also scares the crap out of me. I’m going to take on your advices and hopefully it mightn’t be as hard as I’ve imagined…

    I would love to hear how other expat moms overcome the difficulties when they move to a new country.

    X

    • Maggie Kim

      Kate, you can start by finding expat mom groups on Facebook. The ones here in Paris are really welcoming and friendly and I imagine they’re the same in the UK. They’re also full of information re: schools, areas to live, baby-friendly spots and even meetups. Good luck! Keep us posted with how it’s going. X

      • Thanks for the advices Kim. Yes I’ve started looking them up on Facebook and the local forum. I think when we eventually get there and start going to playgroups and classes with our LO, it might be easier to meet new people the . We shall see!!!

        Scary times ahead…. Eeeeeek!

    • Anita I miss so much especially now that I live in Stanley where we loved shopping for Naomi, Maia, Iska and Sasha together.
      You are trully gifted my friend and I hope to be able to share your beautiful way of life with our readers one day.
      Love & miss you.
      Yours, always.

  3. Such an important article – thank you for writing it! Expat depression, new parent depression (including of course PPD) – it seems like life throws so many emotional curveballs at us these days, and it’s reassuring to know we’re (I’m!) not alone. My friend started a new podcast called Mindful Expat that explores some of these issues that you or others might want to check out: http://www.dananelsoncounseling.com/mindful-expat-podcast/

  4. I am English and moved to Paris when I was 21 (in 1989). It was meant to be a gap year but I got married and had 2 children. For years I pined home and family and was the girl at the back of the ferry crying as the boat docked in Calais – surrounded by happy Brits excited to be in France. My father and brother died back in the UK and both my grandparents who I adored leading to more upset and depression. Then we moved to Gascony and I found myself missing the Paris I had learned to love. Gascony was far more remote but filled with British expat communities who shunned me at times for being “too French.” Now when I go home to England I feel a “foreigner” – and since Brexit feel my French hubby would be a bit unwelcome. I have just written a memoir about these feelings of isolation and issues of belonging.

  5. “You’re certainly not prepared for sadness sneaking up on you, triggered by a Facetime with your best friend showing off her latest Monoprix purchase.”

    Seriously? The only thing I can say is, “Oh, dear.”

  6. À brillant article, that I couldn’t have written better myself. There is so much to be taken into consideration when living abroad. We are essentially “exposed & vunerable”. Highs and lows eventually even out. As and when blissful balance is achieved, if ever, then BINGO. For me it’s’about balance between here and there, rather than one or the other. But that took about 5 years to understand that it’s hard to move back when you’ve been away a long time, therefore can be stuck. Balance is best.

  7. Pingback: The dark side of expat life in France (and where to turn for help)

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