Mental well-being is very complex, and so is the one of living abroad. Migrating is a layered phenomenon, and while a welcoming choice for some, it is undoubtedly a more pressured one for others. Within this multi-dimensional spectrum, our moving experience intersects with the politics of migrating, the privileges we acquire and the ones we leave behind, and new forms of connection and association. And when migration happens, we may not have the language to understand the nuances of our experiences as foreigners.
In this blog post, I will explore:
- the connection between mental health and migration
- how your coping strategies are impacted by moving to a different country
- the factors impacting your mental health in the new country
- the aftermath of migrating on the mental health
Can moving abroad affect your mental health?
Understanding how moving aborad can affect our mental health is tricky. Finding and understanding the why’s and how’s of our emotional and psychological experiences is already a minefield, let alone when we add to the pot issues related to migration. Not all of the struggles with mental health are a direct consequence of migrating, although it most probably exacerbated some of the difficulties we were already experiencing.
To clarify our experience, I like to think of the “moving abroad” moment as our variable and reference point to talk about our mental health. In this way, we can think of our mental health in relation to our life before moving, as a result of moving and once we settle in the new place.
Who were we before moving?
“Who were you before moving?” is one of those questions I don’t hear asking enough or exploring. But this is such an important question. Sharing who we were before migrating is a way of honouring our past. For the present moment, it is a way to understand what resource toolbox and capacity we have to deal with life.
When moving abroad, that resource toolbox we crafty built over the years will get tested repeatedly. It will gain a new shape, something between the old and the new. So, for example, those thirty minutes a day of yoga to decompress may have been the best coping strategy before moving. Lack of adequate space, language barrier to attending a yoga studio, and moving-related stress may make it hard to use yoga to cope with your life in your new country. Here, I am saying yoga, but it could be anything else.
Aside but somewhat connected to these different areas, other questions came to mind when considering what may have impacted someone’s mental health before moving to a foreign country. It is about how we envision our lives and what hinders our capacity to get there.
- What aspirations and dreams did you have?
- What aspirations and dreams didn’t feel possible where you were?
- What aspirations and dreams are now possible?
Moving abroad and its emotional toll on our well-being
Moving and living abroad impact our mental health, even when migrating is a choice. The most exciting of moves can come with some difficulties. Still, our attitude and previous experiences (and that resource toolbox I was previously talking about) contribute to how we deal with being in a foreign land.
Moving is stressful, let alone moving to a place where you know very little of the customs and habits of the people there (and the rental market, too!). This type of stress intersects with other aspects of the migration experience, from how the receiving society perceives us to the social network we connect to (if we connect to anyone at all) together with our capacity to communicate with this new reality. Let’s see them in more detail.
Everything plays a role in the way we feel and go about ourselves. The experiences in the new country overlap with whom we were before moving abroad and shape how we move forward.
We are settled: now what?
I consider being settled in a new environment an exciting stage. When all the energy around moving abroad fades away, what happens when you settle into your routine and get familiar with the space?
Here are a few considerations:
Reality vs expectations – the life you imagined before leaving is not as easy as expected. You had to manage your expectations and adapt them to the new information you now have about living abroad.
Isolation – It can be challenging to connect to other people when moving abroad, sometimes because of a language barrier, cultural shock, money issues, or lack of familiar social and cultural cues. You may also feel the separation from your old support network and an increased sense of homesickness.
Identity – finding your feet in this new reality can be tricky. Who am I now? Who am I in relation to this new space?
Suppose you initiate another move when some of the processes of adaptation and settling haven’t concluded yet. Or even when ended, and no matter how much knowledge and skills you accrued during your first move or moves, migrating would still present its set of challenges. Sometimes, this can appear like frustration, feeling like we should know better because we went through it already. Let’s pause here for a moment. Moving again means carrying the experiences of being a migrant, including whom you were before migrating. It also means dealing with new customs and attitudes, especially the ones towards foreigners, and understanding who you are and where you position in the new social fabric. And this can be highly tiring and discomforting.
Other considerations on the intersection between mental health and migration
Migrating is a complex phenomenon, and this complexity shows how it impacts people’s mental health. There may be other factors intersecting with the psychological and emotional well-being of those who migrate that go beyond the moving country.
- If mainly constituted of people who migrated there, your social network in the new country can often shrink and expand. This can bring spurs of solitude, challenging to reconcile with a very much settled life.
- Your social network from your home country may have taken different paths and moved to other places, making it difficult for you to connect to the people who were there for you before leaving.
- Creating a family in a new country has its own set of difficulties. If you have a child, they may be proficient in a language that you are maybe still trying to grasp. Or you may be struggling to create a bridge between your family and friends from back home with the one you have in the new country.
- Your social network and family in your home country may inquire and share their desire to have you back, even years after moving out.
- Holidaying in your home country may bring a sense of nostalgia and missed familiarity when going back to your new country, making it harder to resettle.
The very process of migrating brings us to the here and now, to focus on the things that help us settle in the new place. Often, our mental health is the last thing we check in on because of time constraints, financial reasons or simply because life is adjusting to what is new. Other things need prioritising than our mental health.
But when the time comes that you stop and feel like you would like to look into this a bit further, you can always check in with yourself and ask, “How am I doing today? What is impacting me? Can I distance myself or take a break from it?” And if life still feels difficult, counselling can support you to navigate this new space.