The number of people moving abroad is rising each year - mostly families relocating for increasingly long periods of time. It’s an enriching experience, but it can be a challenge psychologically.
What is the psychological impact of international mobility?
Moving abroad implies changes in almost every aspect of life: family life, social life, professional life and your environment. It means leaving things behind and rebuilding elsewhere. To successfully adapt, you need substantial psychological resources. You need to have confidence in yourself and your ability to solve any problems that may arise. Moving abroad can be stressful for any individual and if you relocate as a family, good communication between all members (spouses and/or parents and children) is essential.
The “expatriate life cycle”
When expatriates arrive in a new country, they go through a series of recognized stages known as the “expatriate life cycle”. In most cases, they develop new bearings and find a balance that enables them to feel comfortable, if not flourish, in their new country.
The “culture shock” stage is the most delicate stage psychologically. It begins around three months after settling in a new country. When expatriates first arrive, they are in the “honeymoon” period, actively settling in and euphoric about their new discoveries. Once this stage is over, they may feel exhausted, lose confidence in themselves and start having doubts about the project. Symptoms of anxiety can appear (sleeping problems, concentration problems, irritability). These psychological effects can be mild and subside as the person adapts or much more severe, putting the whole project in question.
Finally, returning home remains a difficult period for 70% of people. Expatriation opens new horizons and offers you wildly different and often extraordinary experiences. Combing back to day-to-day life in your home country and company is far from easy. Your experiences abroad are not always listened to, recognized or appreciated by the people you’re reunited with – whether it’s your friends and loved ones or your colleagues and managers.
Do people who live abroad suffer from different psychological problems than other people?
People who live abroad do not have different psychological problems than the rest of the population, but they may be identified much later. Being far away from people you care about, being isolated in a new country, and having difficulty finding appropriate help in your native language can keep people from getting the kind of psychological support they’d have access to at home.
There is also the question of mental representations. Expatriations based on professional grounds are seen as performance-based and highly demanding. Whether it’s to work for a major international company, a humanitarian organization or for a student internship, moving abroad is generally perceived as a very expensive investment in a new opportunity. Admitting to having a problem is complicated – it would be tantamount to admitting failure or weakness.
The most common problems expatriates are faced with today are anxiety, depression, burn out, and addiction (alcohol, drug and prescription medication). People are also treated for post-traumatic stress disorder due to serious situations (assaults, disasters, accidents, kidnappings, etc.).
What’s the best way to manage these psychological challenges?
It’s important that everyone involved in expatriation (from human resources and security to corporate doctors and general management) is fully educated and trained in its distinctive psychological impact. Assessing and detecting an individual’s existing or potential problems before departure and upon his/her return will help keep them healthy and happy on both a personal and professional level.