I was twenty-seven years old, living in Oregon and working as an intensive in-home family therapist, when one day, I decided I was going to move out of the country. I knew my bilingual colleagues were making more money than I was because they had an extra language in their skillset. So, I decided I would take a year off, move to Spain, learn Spanish and return to my job bilingual and better compensated.
When I spoke to my boss about this plan she was surprisingly on board. She encouraged me to go and assured me that my job would be waiting for me upon my return. With this safety net now in place to ease my mind, I was able to focus on my upcoming transition. I scoured the internet, followed countless social media platforms, joined Facebook groups, read blogs and consulted with others trying to plan for the journey ahead. I downloaded every ‘moving abroad’ checklist and read every ‘big transition essential packing list’ article leading up to my big move. Although stressful on many accounts, this prep work was helpful in decreasing anxiety and fears about the unknown, but only to an extent. I couldn’t even begin to predict the emotional impact such a huge lifestyle change would create.
Fast forward to the present day, in the context of now being an expat therapist who has worked with countless expatriates along their respective journey, I realize that greater resources are needed to improve and maintain mental health, before, during and after their expat transition. Because of the varying reasons people decide to move abroad, there is no cookie cutter approach to dealing with this unique need.
In The Black Expat article, What exactly is An Expat, Anyway? it was noted that people move abroad for work, education, love and adventure among some of life’s other motivating factors. Each of these situational categories affect mental health in its own unique way. For instance, an accompanying partner might struggle with the balance of being proud and happy to be a part of their companion’s success, while also dealing with the grief that comes with transitioning out of their well-established career for the sake and success of their relationship. Likewise, moving for a professional opportunity on one hand could feel exciting and rewarding but might also be coupled with guilt and sadness centered around the geographic separation it creates between family and close friends.
Prevention Vs. Intervention
Assuming your desire to move is a willing choice, several considerations should be made in order to prioritize your mental health before making an international move. When possible, it is important to be self-aware of your mental health needs at the beginning of your transition process. Check in with your preexisting mental health requirements in the same way you would assess and consider your medical history and ongoing pharmaceutical needs.
A common theme I find in my practice is that people often feel that a change of scenery will be an automatic fix to preexisting mental health concerns. This is not generally the case. Therefore, if you’re already engaged in mental health services with a provider you know and work well with, it could be helpful to explore whether virtual capabilities is a feasible option to prevent a gap in care while abroad. If this is not an option, prioritize finding a therapist who speaks your native language in your new region so they can help you navigate your mental health needs.
Another common misconception with engaging in formal mental health care is that people often feel they have to have ‘something big’ or ‘something worth’ talking about before needing the intervention of a therapist. However, preemptively connecting with someone who understands the nuances of international transitions can be helpful in minimizing emotional build up so that the ‘something big’ occurs less frequently. Moreover, using the time you’re not in a mental health crisis to shop around and build rapport with a mental health provider, coach or mentor can be less overwhelming than waiting and trying to find someone once your emotions are already engaged and heightened.
While therapy is the most common form of mental health support it may not be accessible or deemed warranted for one reason or another. Considering this, it is important to be aware of other ways to manage and address your needs. One such method would be setting realistic expectations. Take a second and think about the worst vacation you’ve ever had. Chances are, the trip turned out poor because your expectations of it exceeded the reality of the moment. You might have expected your flight to leave on time, the weather to be great or for your luggage to arrive at the same airport as you. When reality challenges your expectations, it typically results in disappointment. Now copy these sentiments forward to your upcoming move. You may have grand expectations of how great the relocation is going to be, but know that it probably will be challenging for a number of unexpected reasons. Adjusting your mindset to accept this will prepare you to be more accommodating should the unforeseen occur. It can also foster a greater sense of gratitude if the transition goes exactly according to plan. For me, despite having moved internationally on multiple occasions, each time I move I remind myself it will likely take at least a year before I feel fully acclimated to my new region. Remembering that transitions are not linear, despite my experience in this area, also gives me permission to sit in the discomfort of each transition.
Without turning into a pessimist this approach further allows me to be more accepting of challenges when they arise. On the opposing spectrum however, it’s also important to avoid toxic positivity. This is the concept that negative feelings aren’t valid despite the circumstance. For expats, this normally stems from the space of comparative suffering. “I am living the dream and should be happy because by comparison, this is an opportunity of a lifetime.” This mindset causes us to deny ourselves permission to feel. Accepting that two things can be true can help in avoiding this common pitfall.