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Moving abroad and working is an exciting adventure and will undoubtedly change your life. The expatriate journey naturally also brings unique mental health challenges. By understanding them, expats and their families are better able to cope with the complex emotions and tensions that life in a new culture brings.

Based on this assumption, Overseas Social Security spoke to several psychologists from Psygroup, an international psychology practice in Brussels*. These experts shared their insights based on their professional knowledge and personal experiences.

Identity formation in a new culture

One of the main challenges experienced by many expats and their family members is a sense of detachment.

"Children growing up in a country different to the one their parents grew up in, can feel trapped between two cultures. They don’t feel fully connected to their parents’ culture or the culture they grew up in. However, balancing between these cultures also has a positive side: it contributes to enriching their personal development, increases their cultural literacy and leads to a kind of global citizenship," according to Mojca Filipič Sterle, a Doctor of Psychology who emigrated from Slovenia to Belgium with her family. It soon became clear that her children felt they could not fully identify with either Slovenian or Belgian culture because they did not really come into contact with it - after all, they attended an international school. Mojca also told us how a book about her homeland brought her children closer to their roots. "They didn’t grow up in the same culture as we did. But we can stimulate their curiosity about their origins."

Multilingual identity

With this balancing act between two cultures comes another challenge: multilingualism. For the children of expats, growing up with different languages in different situations can lead to developing a multilingual identity. For example, Sonia Schreiber, a clinical psychologist, stated that French was the main language spoken at home when she lived in Korea with her family, but the children answered in English.

“Due to my children learning to use different languages from an early age, they developed a multilingual identity, even though language turned out not to be their forte in the long run.”

While it can be a valuable skill, language barriers and the lack of a strong identity can lead to feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness, especially in children who move frequently. They may feel that change is a constant and out of their control.

“This means that it is first and foremost important to encourage the language in which children feel most comfortable, without pressuring them to speak a specific language. We also have to consider their individual needs and comfort levels. Only in a supportive and positive environment can expat children develop their multilingual skills and create their unique identities.”

The challenge of language identity faded into the background as Sonia's children became more resilient through this adventure.

Culture shock and social isolation

Moving to a new country often means building a new social network. ”And some people find this difficult, which is why I always advise my clients to establish a routine. For example, get your bread from the same baker every week. This gives you support, something to hold on to,” said Cristina Ana, a clinical psychologist from Romania. “Try actively looking for ways to integrate yourself, for example, by taking language classes.”

Lisa Tranchellini, a clinical psychologist from Italy with multiple expat experiences, agrees with this and stresses that lacking a support network can increase feelings of depression and anxiety, especially when cultural differences and language barriers make it challenging to make new contacts.

Lotta De Coster, a Belgian clinical psychologist and Doctor in developmental psychology who has also lived as an expat in Canada, agrees that the lack of a social support system is a significant risk factor for mental health, even more so than the cultural adjustment process that comes with moving to a new place, including adapting to differences in language, climate, food, communication, work, school, education, public transport and health care.

Being of and living in two different worlds, coupled with social isolation (which the pandemic accentuated), can create a sense of loneliness, loss and grief. In addition, it increases the risk of internalising mental health issues in the form of chronic stress, anxiety, emptiness and depression.

“To prevent isolation and associated mental health issues, it is helpful for expats to open themselves up to meeting new acquaintances and friends, both locals and fellow expats, to participate or volunteer in local events and to actively seek out activities that promote daily companionship, emotional bonding and social integration. In the process, expats gain a better understanding of the place they’re living in and feel more connected to its people.”

Of course, the ball is not entirely in your court – the support of your employer is also an important factor in making your expat adventure a success. Often, they can offer more support than you might have initially expected. ”Employers play an important role in supporting expats' mental health. Offering access to a psychologist can significantly improve the well-being of expats,” Cristina notes. “They can provide specific counselling programmes or make professional help available because they benefit from your mental health, too – it directly affects their employees' work performance.”

Self-care and support

An expat adventure is full of big and small challenges: dealing with stress, adjusting to a new culture and lifestyle, maintaining strong relationships with loved ones and new friendships, etc. Self-insight and self-care are crucial to deal with these challenges, and it is important to realise that you are never alone in this journey. Don't hesitate to seek support in your new surroundings.

In short, moving and working abroad is an exciting and highly personal adventure in which resilience and growth are key. The psychologists conclude: the life of an expat is all about facing challenges, adapting to new cultures and environments and discovering opportunities to grow and develop as an individual while being gentle with yourself.

*We spoke to the following clinical psychologists-psychotherapists working at Psygroup:

  • Mojca Filipic Sterle
  • Cristina Ana
  • Lisa Tranchellini
  • Sonia Schreiber
  • Lotta De Coster
  • Patrick Engelhardt

Would you like to share your travel experiences?

Are you an expat or do you know someone with an inspiring experience abroad? Please don't hesitate to contact us at overseas-expat@onssrszlss.fgov.be. And who knows, you might inspire future expats with your story.

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