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Expat depression: An unspoken reality of moving abroad

Submitted by Rhiannon Read

We often romanticise the idea of moving to a different country, but the reality is usually quite different.

Moving abroad can be the beginning of a new chapter in your life, one rich with opportunities for personal growth and new understandings of the world. There is an undeniable sense of freedom, adventure, and novelty that fuels your imagination and emboldens you to pursue your dreams.

Living abroad is an incredible experience. Until it isn’t.

While adjusting to life in a new culture, it is normal to feel out of place and, at times, lonely. Eventually, the excitement of moving abroad wears off, and you're left with the same – or in my case, even more – challenges than you had back home.

Expat depression

“Expat depression” is a term used to describe the increased risk of feeling depressed or low in spirits for people who move overseas. It is not openly talked about within the expat community, but it is a reality that many of us have experienced.

When I first moved to the Netherlands, I expected it to be a challenge, but what I hadn’t expected was the mental stress of feeling so alone once the initial feelings of excitement wore off. I found that life was becoming less of an adventure and more overwhelming and isolating. As time went on, I started withdrawing physically and emotionally from the new city I had chosen as a home. I would wake up, cry, go to university, cry, study, and cry again before going to sleep.

I felt myself sinking deeper into this cycle and that there was no one I could talk to about it. I would often scroll through Instagram and see everyone appearing to love their new lives abroad. This made me believe that my experience was abnormal and that there was no one who could relate to how lonely I was feeling.

Three years later, I decided to reach out to my friends who are currently living as expats in the UK, US, and Europe about the impact moving abroad had on their mental health. This was the first time I realised that my struggles with loneliness and depression living as an expat were far from unique. It was something that many of us, including myself, were simply too afraid to talk about.

Keeping up appearances

The decision to move away from home is undoubtedly a hard one, but what comes later is the pressure to prove to your family and friends, as well as to yourself, that it was the right choice. For many of those to whom I reached out, they remained silent of their true feelings because they believed that they needed to justify their choice to relocate their lives abroad. Instead, some would turn to social media to portray a filtered version of their lives abroad, to shield them from some of that judgement.

The problem is that depicting this fantasy version of reality simply perpetuates feelings of loneliness that come from the idea that life abroad should be this never-ending adventure. Yet in reality, that is never the case. The impact of social media on our mental health is why I feel many of us have a hard time opening up about the negative parts of moving abroad and how lonely it truly can be.

Conversations matter

When you move overseas, the initial lack of a support system can make you feel incredibly alone. That is why having these conversations and recognising that you are struggling and keeping yourself afloat already shows your strength. You're not alone in your experience, so reach out.

It’s important to understand that on social media, expats can pretend that their new lives are near-perfect. This may be a way to justify uprooting their old lives, but it only serves to feed the toxic narrative that "the grass is always greener."

Finding someone to talk to can be more challenging for expats, and you often must consider the types of help who are available to you. Depending on your circumstances, you might or might not be able to find professional help in the country you relocated to. Yet, there are still many ways you can talk to and meet people. There are Facebook groups for expats from all over the world, for example, that give a safe space for individuals to open up and build actual communities where they live. These online communities can materialise into physical communities, which reiterates the message that there is no need to struggle alone.

If you are struggling with symptoms of depression, there are options to find therapy and other support services online. But, if that is not enough and you want to return home, never consider that a defeat.


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