Moving abroad and expat depression

Living in a new country is a phenomenal experience. But with adjusting to new cultures comes feeling out of place and lonely. Expat depression is incredibly common; here are some tips on dealing with it

Feature by Victoria Dudys | 13 Feb 2017
  • Expat Depression

Moving abroad presents so many opportunities for personal growth and to expand your social circle, cultural knowledge and spirituality. You feel free, and open, and inspired, and like every insurmountable problem in your way can be conquered if you just push a little bit harder. 

Living abroad is great. Until it isn’t.

Drowning, not waving

When I first arrived in Edinburgh from Toronto I was in awe of the city and culture around me. I loved everything about Edinburgh and Scotland and was excited to be starting afresh and reinventing myself in a new country. But after about five months I fell into a major rut. To me, life was not just becoming less exciting, but completely overwhelming and unbearable. I realized that I had made virtually no friends since I worked alone, and had an almost non-existent support system. I would wake up, cry, go to work, cry in the bathroom, cry on the bus home, and cry before going to sleep. It took me a while to realize it, but when a friend came to visit from back home and said, “Maybe you’re depressed,” I finally admitted to myself that I needed help.

Culture shock

After doing a quick Google search it became clear that expat depression is incredibly common. It seems that a major contributor to depression is moving away from what we’re used to culturally and our usual emotional support system. Adjusting to a new place is bound to give you a bit of culture shock. I’m surprised talking to other Canadian expats how similar things were tough to get used to when we first got here. There are definitely a few things many of us agree on.

Coming to Scotland has given me a much thicker skin for a few reasons. Scots are really, bluntly honest. If you do something to upset someone, they’ll let you know, full stop. It’s something I’ve really grown to love, but a bit unnerving for the first few months of living here, especially while working in the service industry.

The general sense of humour is very different too. Scots take 'taking the piss' to a whole new level and it took me a bit of time to understand that I was in uncharted comedic territory. But now that I’ve stopped taking everything so personally, I totally get it. Pish takin’ is hilarious.

Currency matters

Heating here is expensive. As is everything else. But moving here as the cold, wet months start, and having no money made me get sick a lot. Sure Canada is cold, but it’s much more rare to come across flats that don’t include heating in the rent price. You can’t really live without it in -40 degree Celsius weather. But the cold back home is dry, meaning it’ll sting your skin a bit when you’re outside, but you can run in to some place heated and warm up quite quickly. The cold here is wet and makes it really tough to truly warm up.

When I moved over the Canadian dollar was at an all-time low and many things in Edinburgh are almost double the price than what they are back home. The money I had saved over a period of two years lasted me just over a month. Edinburgh is expensive, and setting up a Scottish bank account was no picnic. I had to find a bank that would allow me to open an account without a permanent address but I was having trouble letting flats because agencies and private landlords usually require you have proof of income, which I had yet to start earning.

Lastly, I felt incredibly disoriented with stupid little things. “Brown sauce? What the heck’s brown sauce?” Flat white and long black were new to me too. “Red sauce? It’s ketchup. Or is it tomato sauce?” And rolls. People call sandwiches rolls and morning rolls rolls and when you work in a café it starts to get really confusing. I’m being a bit overdramatic, but not knowing a lot of slang caused quite a bit of embarrassment my first few months in the country and can enhance that lonely or isolated feeling so many expats seem to experience.

Talk about it

Depression is like this little goblin that lives in the deep corners of your mind who tells you you’re not good enough for friends and makes you feel insecure basically anywhere outside of your bed. When I finally decided I wanted to get past my depression I knew I’d have to find someone to speak to. I had gone to a few therapy sessions as a teenager so I knew what to expect, but it was still a bit nerve-wracking discussing my neuroses with a total stranger. After crying through the whole of my first session, I realized it was definitely what I needed: a person who could give me an objective opinion on my feelings and fears.

Dealing with years of built-up issues was making it incredibly difficult to keep myself intact. I would go into my new job looking sallow and red-eyed from lack of sleep and general feeling-shittiness. My next step towards recovery was booking an appointment with my doctor. I was prescribed Citalopram, a common anti-depressant, that worked wonders and helped me to stay mentally balanced while going through therapy.

I’m very lucky to have moved to a country where medication is covered. I wouldn’t have been able to afford both therapy sessions and anti-depressants making minimum wage. This is where it starts to get tricky for travellers or expats. Oftentimes you’ll have to evaluate how bad your depression is and what you need to resolve your issues without professional help. Depending on your situation, you may or may not be able to access the tools you really need to get better. I have a friend who moved to Australia and after dealing with depression for about five months while away, made the tough decision to come back home. Everyone is different, as are everyone’s needs and everyone’s level of depression. Never consider it a mistake to count your losses and return home if life is too much of a struggle.

Expats, mind your minds

If you’re thinking of moving to a new country, expect it to be challenging. I knew it might be tricky to find a job, afford to feed myself, let a flat, and set up a new life. What I didn’t expect was the mental stress of feeling so far out of my element. Anticipate your feelings of excitement to change once you settle into your new home. The initial excitement of being somewhere new will fade and you’ll be left with all the problems you thought you moved away from and new ones that come along with leaving home. When you’re getting yourself settled, make it as easy as possible to meet new friends. Try to get a job that introduces you to likeminded people, ones who will be able to spend some time with you outside of work. Moving in with a few strangers is always a good idea too. It not only offers a few people to chat to when you’re feeling low at home, but can connect you with a network of friends as well.

Keep in mind that this experience – whether you move alone, with a pal, or a partner – is the perfect opportunity to get in touch with what makes you happy. Going for a swim, practising yoga, playing Quidditch or anything else that makes you smile is a great way to perk yourself up if you feel lonely or homesick. Don’t be too hard on yourself either. You need time to adjust to your new life. You’re not weak just because you’re feeling low, and these feelings will eventually pass.

Remember: no matter how you have to deal with your depression, struggling through it and keeping yourself afloat already demonstrate how strong you are. You’re a bad ass, brave traveller and have come so far in finding out what you’re made of, where you want to be, and who you are.