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  • Henriette Johnsen

Depression in expats

According to the Danish Mental Health Fond every five or six of us will suffer from depression of varying degree at some stage throughout our life.


What is depression?

Depression is a state of feeling low, lethargic and taking no interest in or pleasure from one’s activities over a prolonged period of time. This often for no apparent reason. The depressive state varies from sadness to melancholy and deep despair. It is a heavy burden to carry, takes away the joy for life and often makes people retreat into their own thoughts and feelings and as such isolate themselves.


Depression in expats

For many, expat life is the greatest adventure of their life. For others, expat life proves to be challenging beyond belief and a source of isolation, loneliness, stress, anxiety and depression.


The initial phase of expat life is filled with practical things to sort out such as finding accommodation, schooling for children, opening bank accounts and registering with a GP … the list goes on. Due to the unfamiliarity of the new environment and a general lack of understanding of one’s new culture, many find these settling in tasks physically as well as mentally draining and haven’t got any energy to begin building a social support network.


Without emotional support, expat life easily becomes lonely and a sense of lack of belonging emerges. Adding the stressors of constantly navigating in unfamiliar territory, stress and anxiety can easily set in. For many, otherwise competent people with courage and zest for life, helplessness and rumination set in and leave people feeling depressed.


Even for seasoned expats, life changes during time abroad can hit harder than they would have back home. As such, some expats find themselves more susceptible to depression.


In my practice, I see many expats suffering from depression and anxiety. Common for them all is the lack of social contacts in their everyday life and a profound sense of loss of feeling grounded. Many express not having the same sense of agenda in their life as they used to back home, and some find themselves going through an identity crisis.


In my experience, losing touch with your identity, can have an enriching outcome, but whilst being depressive, it's impossible to see positive in anything, and talking about a learning outcome at this stage is pointless bordering to the disrespectful.


Being depressive can tear you down, make you come into contact with aspects of yourself which you didn't even know existed, tempt you to make choices out of your character and of sheer desperation try to implement changes to your life without thinking through all the consequences of these. Depression, like anxiety, is a debilitating state and should not be left untreated. Below, you will find a list of signs of depression as well as a some advice on how to take care of yourself during this difficult time.


What are the signs of depression?

Signs of depression can be:

  • Feeling low, sad and excessively tired over a prolonged period of time without being able to pinpoint specific reasons for this

  • Loss of interest for one’s normal activities

  • Loss of energy and drive

  • Feelings of self-blame

  • Lack of self-confidence

  • Life seems to lack meaning and importance

  • Social isolation

  • Difficulties with concentration

  • Poor quality of sleep. You wake up in the early hours and are unable to fall asleep again. You sleep for prolonged periods of time during the day.

  • Increase of decrease in appetite

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • Physical pains

  • Anxiety – often related to stress

  • Change in behaviour – irritability, aggression, indecision

  • Change in alcoholic consumption

  • In very serious cases, hallucinations and delusions

What can you do?

To support yourself during this challenging time, it's important to:

  • Build awareness and acceptance. These are key in treating depression.

  • Be gentle with yourself.

  • Be conscious of self-care and self-compassion.

  • Lead as healthy a life as you possible can: Try to see if you can keep a routine, do gentle exercise, go for walks in nature, eat well and even if you experience difficulties sleeping keep to a fixed bedtime.

  • Talk to your nearest and dearest about your feelings and emotions. It's important to take support.

  • Build an awareness of what is missing in your life: Where does the loss stem from?

  • Seek help if you feel stuck in your depressive state and don’t seem to be making any progress. When suffering from depression, it can be difficult to getting started and committing to changes so having the ongoing support from a mental health professional can be helpful in accepting, dealing with and overcoming your struggles.


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