Emigration takes its toll on expats’ mental health

Expats need to find a balance between missing home and embracing their new country. Picture: Quintin Gellar/Pexels

Expats need to find a balance between missing home and embracing their new country. Picture: Quintin Gellar/Pexels

Published Jul 23, 2023


Emigrating to a new country can take a heavy toll on your mental health, even though the move may be an exciting journey filled with hope, optimism, and a sense of new beginnings.

First world amenities, cleanliness, safety, and plentiful job opportunities do not necessarily mean that settling down will be easy as, no matter how much you want it, emigration means you are leaving behind loved ones, friends, routines, and everything else you have ever known.

The defence case of South African woman Lauren Dickason, who admitted to murdering her three young children in New Zealand, looks to be centred on mental health issues she struggled with since a teenager. These are said to have been compounded by postpartum depression and the stress of the move to a new country.

Dickason is currently on trial in New Zealand for killing her three daughters – aged 6 and 2 (twins), by strangling them with cable ties. Her husband, Graham, stated that, in the months leading up to the murders, Dickason was battling various stresses, which included the family’s recent move to New Zealand.

Following news of the murders in 2021, many people noted that while the mother’s actions could not be justified, the stress of emigration was a real mental health battle. Issues that expats encounter – even if they have emigrated to a country where the main language is their own, include social culture shock, lack of support and friendship, loneliness, and new work and business cultures. Knowing how heartbroken family members are back home adds to this.

A 2021 report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states that, nearly all of the stressful life events ranked on the Social Readjustment Scale can be assigned to one of four broad categories. These are:

  1. Changes in relationships with family or friends
  2. Changes in employment or financial status
  3. Changes in residence
  4. Changes in health

“Regardless of reasons for immigrating, even under the most favourable and welcoming circumstances, an individual moving to a different country can be expected to experience multiple and chronic stressors in all of these categories,” the report states.

It further says that, on a group level, adapting to life in a new country can involve changes in ways of doing business, the use of technology, social interactions, and political activities. On an individual level, it can involve changes to behaviour, attitudes, beliefs, and self-image.

Psychologists equate emigration to the effects of divorce or broken homes in children, and this stress makes expats five times as likely to suffer damaging emotional and mental stress and/or fall into anti-social behaviour. In addition, many people who may have lived fairly good quality lives in their home countries find themselves starting back at the bottom in their new homes. They struggle financially as they try to rebuild the lives they gave up when moving.

For these reasons, some people who emigrate end up returning to their home countries after just a few months. This is often met with cries of ‘don’t give up too soon’ from fellow expats who say they also experienced the challenges but stuck it out and are now happy in their new homelands.

To make the most of your emigration journey and allow yourself to make rational decisions about whether to stay or pack up and return home, here are some tips:

1. Be realistic about your expectations

There is a lot of pressure on expats to have a better life in their new countries, but you need to acknowledge that this will take time. Not only do many people put pressure on themselves to live their best lives, but they also face pressures from people back home who may not be in support of the move and want to see them fail.

Having a home to live in and a job to earn money are two of the main things you need to focus on, but it does not mean that you need to live in the same size home you did back home or have the same job title you used to. Rather, have a plan to eventually work yourself towards living in the type of home you want or carrying the employment title you seek. There is no rush to have it all straight away. Be prepared to take a few steps back and be willing to work your way up again.

2. Make friends with your new countrymen

When landing in a new country, many expats immediately reach out to others from their home country, and while this is not a bad thing at all – and can actually be good, you should not isolate yourself from the local community.

Making friends with the locals will help you settle in and feel like you actually belong in your new country. Yes, your fellow expats will be able to offer you support based on their experiences, but the locals will also help you cement yourself into your new country. They will also be able to offer you support that expats may not be able to.

3. Accept that you will feel homesick

Just because you have packed up your whole life and set off on a new adventure does not mean you have to take on a conqueror mentality. You are not a machine; you are a human being who has just left everything you know, and perhaps everyone you love, behind. Acknowledge your losses and allow yourself to feel them. You are allowed to grieve those losses while embracing your new life.

Also make a point of keeping in touch with supportive family and friends back home so that you feel like you have people, even if they are a thousand miles away.

Importantly, do not be ashamed to seek professional help if you are suffering from depression. You are not alone and these healthcare specialists know the toll emigration can take. Do not suffer in silence.

4. Give yourself time to make it home

Just as you should be realistic about your expectations for your new house or job, you should also expect that settling in will not happen overnight. Some days you will feel on top of the world and love where you are, and other days you will feel like you just want to crawl up in a heap on the floor and cry – and then book a ticket home. This is normal.

Adjusting to your new life with new people and new traditions will take you some time, and not just a few weeks. Many expats report that they only started to really get over the initial depression after a few months or even a couple of years. There is no time limit on how long it takes you to feel you are home. As long as you try every day to give it your best shot you will never have to doubt whether your decision to stay or return home was the right one.

5. Embrace local offerings

Many expats arrive in their new countries and immediately start trying to source food from home. And this is not a bad thing, after all, your favourite foods will always be your favourite foods. However, if you limit yourself to what you know, you will not be able to start embracing your new culture. You need to acknowledge that your life, and the things in it, will be different going forward. The shops will be different, the social cultures will be different, and, yes, the chutney will be different.

If you continually search for everything you used to have, you will feel disheartened by what you have lost instead of feeling excited about what you could have. Not everything that is different is worse.

The same goes for your routines. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone in order to fully embrace your new life. If you keep mourning the life you had you will never be able to see the beauty in the life you could have.