Expat depression: recognition, reasons and remedies

23 November 2016

You’re moving abroad to work. It’s a new and exciting chapter in your life. New experiences, new cultures, and a feather in your cap since you were chosen above others who have stayed at home. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer is expat depression. No one talks about it – but it’s a real problem that affects many expats. Depression is more than a bad mood: it can be debilitating, it can destabilize relationships and, in extreme cases, lead to suicide. The World Health Organization reports that suicide is the third highest cause of non-natural death for US citizens outside the USA

Whilst the severity of depression can vary, it is more prevalent than you may think. Once the initial euphoria of arriving in a new country has worn off, emotional and mental difficulties can blight your experience of overseas working – so we thought it would be useful to summarize some of the symptoms, reasons and remedies for expat depression.

How to recognize expat depression

As with all forms of mental illness, it is often difficult to pinpoint, and many of the symptoms of depression occur occasionally in normal life. However, it is also important to look out for the signs and to be aware that depression may be behind what you are feeling. 

The University of Nebraska published a list of the “Signs and Symptoms of Depression”:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Interest (diminished)
  • Guilt or feeling worthless
  • Energy (loss of)
  • Concentration difficulties or indecisiveness
  • Appetite abnormality or weight change
  • Psychomotor retardation or agitation
  • Suicide or death (acts or thoughts of)
Depression image | FIDI blog

From the exotic to the mundane

But what causes expats to become depressed? The root cause of depression often lies in unrealistic expectations; if you thought it was going to be fantastically different and that the usual mundane pressures of everyday life were not going to apply in your new host country, you were clearly going to have a rude awakening sooner or later – although in the excitement of preparation for a relocation, this is very easy to do.

When it finally comes, the realization hits hard: instead of a few years of exotic new experiences, you can see nothing ahead but the same problems, only worse. You still need to work, go to the dentist, deal with cough and colds, negotiate traffic, deal with paperwork. But this time you do it in another language, according to different rules. Not easy.

The lack of a support network

One of the ways we cope with everyday difficulties in our pre-relocation lives was to draw succor from our support network. A problem shared is a problem halved, they say. Yet when you move to a new country, there are no neighbors to compare notes with, no close friends to confide in, no one to turn to for friendly advice.

Depression is closely associated with loneliness, which is why it is often more associated with an assignee’s partner. While an increasing number of assignee partners are choosing to find work in their new host country (see our post on The Myth of the Trailing Spouse) they are often more susceptible to loneliness – and therefore depression – than their working partners. 

Depression image 2 | FIDI blog

Where to find support?

Some expats will have the support of the host employer, who may be able to help – either by offering support directly or by recommending professional help. However, many expats find it easier to look online first. There are some noted specialists on the subject of expat depression who may be use. A first port of call could be Clara Wiggins, who has posted at length on her excellent site: Expat Partner Survival. Clara also recommends the following: 

There is also an online directory of suitably qualified and experienced therapists in different countries – see the international therapist directory.

Finding support | FIDI blog

The danger of suffering in silence

If you search online you will find various first-hand accounts of expat depression – but one common thread is that hoping the problem will ‘just go away’ is not a sensible course of action. If you are suffering from depression, take encouragement from the fact that many of those who have sought help have turned their problem around and have learned to thrive in their new environments. They may have all found slightly different solutions, or consulted different types of therapists, but they all agree that the most important (although often the hardest) step towards finding a cure for expat depression is to admit it and seek help.


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