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How to cope with expat life depression

Relocating miles away from friends and family, living in a completely foreign environment, working a new job (or not working at all for trailing expat spouses), and possibly facing culture shock. These are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to expat life challenges in Singapore, so it’s no wonder that this jet-setting demographic is highly vulnerable to mental health issues like depression. If you’re an expat, about to be one, or are simply concerned about a loved one, this Pacific Prime Singapore article gives you 7 tips for coping with expat life depression.

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Expat life depression is on the rise

From the chance to explore the area and live like a local to the attractive remuneration package, the expat life is highly coveted and envied. So much so that even expats themselves don’t foresee any issue. According to an Aetna International survey of 5,000 members in 2016, a mere 6% of expats were concerned about mental health issues before relocating.

Yet, expat life depression is very real. These are feelings of severe and sustained despondency and dejection when abroad. The data also supports this. Claims data from Aetna International reveals that mental health is a growing concern for expats. Between 2014 and 2016, mental health claims increased by:

  • 33% in Europe
  • 28% in the Middle East and Africa
  • 26% in the Americas
  • 19% in Southeast Asia

In terms of the most common mental health conditions experienced by expats, depression was the most prevalent, increasing by 50%, followed by anxiety, increasing by 28%. Women between the ages of 30 and 49 were the most likely group of expats to seek treatment for mental health conditions.

Dr. Mitesh Patel, Medical Director at Aetna International, said:

“Part of the reason expats are more susceptible to mental health issues is the absence of the family and friends network they relied on for support back home.”

The COVID-19 impact

Even though Singapore was relatively safe throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing and lockdown measures were enough to cause mental health to take a nosedive. As such, expat depression became more of a thing.

Not only did expats have to cope with social isolation, but they’ve also had to do it away from the familiarity of their home country. Being so far away from loved ones can also increase worries – particularly if the situation back home was dire.

What’s more, the border closures and quarantine requirements made the distance between expats and their loved ones more real. It was no longer the case of hopping on a flight and arriving hours later in their home country.

Case study: “I just want to go home”

An FT article looked at Tara* and her family who moved back to the UK after 12 years as expats in Singapore because of the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine rules. She said:

“The lure of the dream expat life had faded.”

The rise in anti-foreigner sentiment in Singapore was also another factor mentioned, prompted by the economic downturn and increased competition for jobs.

*Name changed in the original FT article.

7 tips for coping with expat life depression

Now that we’ve covered expat life depression, the following section offers 7 tips to cope with expat life depression for yourself or to share with your loved ones. That being said, these tips are not intended to replace medical advice. If in any doubt, or if the situation worsens, please consult a mental health professional immediately.

1. Get enough sleep

The majority of adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. If you’re getting less than this on a regular basis, then chances are your sleep patterns will have a negative impact on your energy levels and state of mind.

Trouble sleeping? Here are some tips:

  • Avoid screens at least an hour or more before bed and dim the lights well before it’s bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and avoid exercising too close to bedtime.
  • Do keep a regular bedtime by waking up and going to sleep at the same time each day and night.
  • Do something relaxing before bed such as reading, journaling, meditating, etc.

However, do bear in mind that oversleeping can also be a symptom of depression. As such, if you’re getting more than enough sleep, but are still struggling then it might be time to seek professional help.

2. Stay active with exercise

The benefits of exercise can’t be stressed enough. When it comes to mental health, exercise can lower stress levels and anxiety. Exercise also boosts self-confidence – which is handy for expats in an unfamiliar environment.

You can go for cardio exercise like walking, jogging, or running. Alternatively, for lower-impact options, you can try yoga or pilates. These are all great options to help alleviate some of the symptoms of depression.

Further reading: Best exercises for mental health

3. Limit alcohol intake

While it’s okay to drink a glass of wine with dinner or unwind with a few beers, it’s important to monitor your alcohol and avoid binge drinking – no matter how tempting it may be. This is because alcohol can only boost your mood initially, but leaves you feeling worse in a few hours.

Did you know that alcohol can affect the chemistry of your brain? It’s not common to feel more anxious and depressed after drinking, so it’s best to limit or avoid alcohol when you’re not feeling your best.

4. Build a support network

The easiest way to adjust to expat life is to make friends and build a support network. Those with a support network overseas are at lower risk of suffering from depression in the first place. Moreover, having friends also gives you someone to lean on when you’re feeling down.

New to the country? Here are some tips:

  • Socialize with your colleagues at work
  • Join an expat social group or online network
  • Search for volunteering opportunities
  • Keep in touch with friends and family back at home

5. Lay off social media

Social media definitely has its pros. But it can also be a negative trigger. You’ll be constantly reminded of life back at home or feel compelled to post about your adventurous expat life abroad (which may not reflect your actual lifestyle).

Remind yourself that social media isn’t real life, but just an illusion. What’s more, give yourself plenty of time and space to adjust to your new surroundings without the pressures of social media.

6. Talk it out

If/when things get tough, don’t keep it all bottled up on the inside. Let the people around you know so that they understand what’s going on with you, can offer a helping hand, or at the very least are able to check in on you.

You can also speak to a mental health professional such as a therapist. Finding one that you can trust and talk to sooner, rather than later, can also ensure that your feelings don’t spiral out of control.

7. Avoid stressors

Expat life brings with it a lot of changes, all at once. You may have a new job, a new apartment, a new country, and many other new things to learn about. Don’t be too hard on yourself or set too high of an expectation.

Is there anything in particular that’s stressing you out or been a bit difficult? Recognizing the stressors is an important first step. Of course, there are some stressors that will be unavoidable. However, you can choose to avoid the stressors that are in your hands.

Secure health insurance with Pacific Prime Singapore today!

Consulting a mental health professional isn’t cheap – especially in Singapore, where the cost of healthcare is bank-breakingly high. While you may already have a group health insurance plan with mental health benefits and employee assistance programs (EAPs), it may also be worth securing a top up or individual health insurance plan to meet your needs.

At Pacific Prime Singapore, we’re specialists in expat health insurance (essentially, international health insurance plans that are most suitable to expats’ lifestyles). With over two decades of experience in this sector, our highly-trained insurance advisors (many of whom are expats themselves) can help you find the best health insurance plan for your needs and budget.

Contact us today for impartial advice, a tailored plan comparison, and a no-obligation quote!

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Content Creator at Pacific Prime Singapore
Suphanida aims to demystify the world of insurance by creating informative and engaging content. As a wordsmith, she spends the majority of her day writing and editing website content, blog posts, in-depth guides, and more.

Outside of work, Suphanida enjoys traveling to new places and immersing herself in different cultures.