Did you know expats have a 50% higher risk of mental health problems such as stress and anxiety?
The Mental Health Status of Expatriate Versus U.S. Domestic Workers is a frequently cited study that compared expatriates in the US to non-expatriates. It found expatriates experience a higher rate of mental health and substance use disorders.
You may not be surprised.
You’re currently planning your life as an expat and you're full of excitement about what this opportunity will offer, but you’ve also got some concerns.
What will it be like living in your host country? What exotic places will you see? What will you learn, and how will these experiences enable you to grow as a person?
You’re excited, but you also wonder:
What are the risks and dangers? Are you being too optimistic? Are you ready?
You lay awake at night wondering if you're ready for this challenge, afraid that you might not prepare well.
You can’t talk to your friends as they're all ignorant of the danger and envious of your opportunity.
But you're right to feel both excitement and doubt.
Moving abroad and living away for a sustained period does pose a risk to your health and well-being.
And the good news?
Well, a little preparation goes a long way.
Yep, there are steps you can take that will keep you safe and sane. You can put things in place that will ensure you maximise the opportunities while minimising the risks to your mental health.
You can have that wonderful experience that your friends are so envious of.
Step 1: Become a Mini Investigator
Before you go abroad, do your research. Search the internet and expat forums for information about living in your host country. Try to learn as much as you can about the culture you’ll be living in.
Guidebooks such as the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides will introduce you to your new country and possibly even your new city. The early pages of these guidebooks list resources such as books to read and movies to watch that will help you understand your host country’s culture better.
Step 2: Learn from Locals
Try to connect with someone who has lived where you’ll be going. When I lived in Uganda as a volunteer, I spent a month training with native workers of the charity I volunteered for. This provided me with a good grounding in the local culture and helped me know what to expect.
If there’s no organization to provide you with an orientation, reach out to expats who live or have lived in your future destination. If you're relocating through your company, is there a colleague you can talk to? Or can you find someone online through an expat forum, such as Expat.com or Expat Focus?
Step 3: Get Up to Date
If you're going to stay in touch with friends and family while you're away, you're going to need to be online.
At a minimum, you'll need an email address that friends and family use to keep in touch. And consider having at least one social media account where you can post pictures. Or get a What's App account where you can send photos to a restricted circle through your phone.
You don't need to post stuff every day, just enough to allow people to feel connected to the sights and sounds of the place you're living in.
Step 4: Organize Diaries
Make sure to arrange times to contact friends and family. The danger is if you leave all calls to chance, you may end up missing each other, and the connection will erode over time.
Choose a medium that you'll use to connect with people and make sure they know how to use it. This may mean training your loved ones on how to use Skype or a similar platform. Having Facetime will help them feel connected to you and erase the oceans that set you apart.
But don't forget the humble telephone either. Get a local sim card and make sure friends and family back home have your number so they can reach you anytime.
Step 5: Become Rambunctious
Concerned you won't know anyone when you arrive? Why not see if you can contact expats or locals that are already living there? There are all sorts of ways to meet locals. There's Tinder for dating, Verbal Planet for language lessons, Language Exchange for language exchange, and Couch Surfing for travel.
You might be able to contact expats through the organisation you’re working with. I started my teaching adventure in China with CIEE, and my contact with future teachers began before I'd left the country.
Step 6: Get Listed
Before you move abroad, there are all sorts of things to organise. Make sure you get a to-do list ready. It would be best to list all the things you need to do before you arrive. In a second list, add all the activities you’ll need to complete after arrival.
Your in-home list should include organising passports and visas, checking if your new accommodation will be suitable, getting appropriate insurance, arranging for health checks or pet relocation and other similar tasks.
Your in-country list may include registering with the local police office or local government, getting visas extended or confirmed, and getting to know the location of essential services.
Step 7: Get Covered
Make sure you get comprehensive international health insurance that covers both physical and mental health.
Although you may feel fine now, you mustn't be too complacent. Mental health problems, just like physical problems, can strike any of us at any time, and it's best to prepare yourself.
Insurer William Russell urges expats to take stock of their mental health. Their international health insurance supports psychological and physical health. They encourage anyone who feels the quality of their mental health has declined to use their coverage and seek the support they need.
Step 8: Cover Your Bases
Consider putting extra support in place through an online counsellor who has experience supporting people as they transition abroad. A specialist online counsellor can ease your anxiety and stress. They’ll ensure you stay well both before and after your transition to moving away.
You may not need to call on them much after you’ve safely settled into your new living location. Still, having supported you during your move, your counsellor will be familiar with your background and be ready to step in to provide any additional assistance if required.
I've worked with several people this way, and although not all of them needed much support while away, they were all glad to know I was there if needed.
Step 9: Avoid Laziness
Do your best to stay physically active when you move to your new country. Don't let exercise routines slip just because you’re in a new environment. Instead, start to plan.
Think about the type of exercise you'll be able to do in your new country and what you might like to undertake. Plan before you leave.
Perhaps you will have regular time for walking and exploring the city you'll be living in; maybe you’ll join a local gym or take up a local practice such as Tai Qi in China or Karate in Japan. Perhaps you’ll buy a bicycle on arrival to help you get about.
If none of that seems possible, then learn some exercise routines that you can do at home, such as joining a fitness or yoga class that you can do online.
Step 10: Think Routine
When you move abroad, it's easy to lose the routines that give your life structure. Think about what your new habits might be like.
This is particularly important if you give up your career when moving abroad. Without the habit of going to work, you could quickly feel disorientated and unmotivated.
So, start thinking about what goals you might set yourself and what routines you'll need to achieve those goals.
Be creative. Try to consider as many options as possible. You may need to experiment with new activities after you’ve arrived to find ones that you’re comfortable sustaining over time.
Step 11: Don't Drop Your Goals
Following from the above, you may need to spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas for new goals. If you're giving up your career to look after your kids or home, then have you fully prepared for the transition?
Many expats feel surprised by how much the change affects them. It's not that they don't love their family or enjoy spending time with them; it's just that they're not used to having roles and identities solely orientated around the family, and they can find it hard to adjust.
That's why it's a good idea to think about what you might like to achieve while you're in your host country and take steps to make that vision a reality.
Step 12: Deal With It
If you have any ongoing mental health issues that you're dealing with, make sure you get help and support for them. Don't think that moving away will make all your problems disappear.
Consider getting some help before you leave. Find an online counsellor who you can work with wherever you're based.
And don't forget resources that might be available in your new host country. Many countries have mental health services available. Towns and cities are likely to offer counselling and mental health support, and international health insurance may well cover treatment at these centres.
The important thing is not to leave a problem unaddressed and hope the move will make it go away. Instead, get some help and support to ensure you're not leaving anything to chance.
Be Prepared for Your Expat Life
You're planning a move abroad for an extended period.
You'll be living in a foreign country with all the promise and challenge that entails.
You're looking forward to what the experience will bring, but you're nervous too.
What happens if you don't like it? What happens if you struggle more than others believe you will?
The truth is, you're not wrong to be cautious. Expats are at a greater risk of mental health problems, but you can take steps to ensure that you minimize your risk.
Why not go through the steps in the post and start working on them straight away?
Focus on the ones that you think will be most beneficial for you, but don't skip any if you can.
Reach out if you need any support.
I'm here to help.
Becoming an expat is a daunting challenge, but you don't have to lose your sanity in the process.
It's possible to move abroad and stay sane. It's possible to have a wonderful, fulfilling time without suffering too much from the downsides. You can survive, thrive, and grow during your life abroad.
Let's raise a glass to your forthcoming trip.
It's going to be everything you hope for and more.