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Mental health for foreigners: a vital discussion for improving wellbeing abroad

There are many reasons why we need to address mental health among foreigners. Lack of support network, feeling uprooted, language barriers and getting around new cultural norms can weigh us down even on the most exciting experience abroad.

If you are curious and want to learn more, I have a podcast We are here, too, where I delve into the ebbs and flows of life abroad and how it impacts our mental health.

This blog post is connected to a podcast episode: (S1E2) Migration and mental health: a journey of hope, overcoming and connection 

The importance of talking about mental health when living abroad

In the UK only, according to the Common Library brief paper, in the year ending June 2022, 1.1 million people migrated into the UK, and 560,000 people emigrated from it. But one piece of datum that seemed to be ignored in the past couple of years is that according to information retrieved from the Government website, coronavirus (COVID-19) has negatively impacted the living and working conditions of migrants, thereby increasing the risk of mental health concerns during the pandemic. 

This information rarely hits the front page of a newspaper, but it is a reality that many of us have gone (or still going) through. And as a society, we can only move forward if all their members are looked after and valued.

On one side, moving abroad can be a fulfilling experience and improve overall our mental health. We may experience less discrimination, have a better work-life balance, better working conditions, and have a more supportive social network.

That said, some of the issues faced when living abroad can impact different areas of our life, including work and personal relationships. 

Read more Exploring the emotional toll of moving abroad: what does it look like?

The importance of fighting stigma: an intersection

Stigma is about discreditation, humiliation and isolation. It is an outcome of oppression and discrimination, going from micro to macro, from introjected beliefs to social interactions, to the way policies and laws are created and delivered. 

Stigma on mental health and migration varies, intensifying as we move away from what is considered normal and acceptable by mainstream society. And this is how we end up with endless possibilities on how stigma can impact someone’s mental health while compromising:

  • access to services
  • trust in the system
  • affordability and access to suitable housing
  • finding employment
  • social integration

Fighting stigma can foster greater social cohesion, stronger social connections, and a sense of belonging while promoting community well-being through improved access to resources and services, reduced social isolation and exclusion and creating a more supportive and inclusive environment.

Common obstacles when living abroad – a mental health perspective

Moving abroad can be a life-changing experience, but it also comes with its own set of challenges and obstacles. On one side, we go through the ebbs and flows of relocating to a new country, alternating moments of utter admiration for the new country to a phase of frustration and rejection, known as culture shock Eventually, we get to the other end of this emotional rollercoaster (which looks more like a loop rather than a one-way road), leaving us with an important dilemma. If, after all, we want to stay, we are then working through ways to adapt to the foreign culture (not an easy undertaking). If we instead decide to leave, we are faced with the question “where next?” (an equally not easy undertaking).

Read more: Culture shock is real

Living abroad involves a significant transition and adjustment period, and that is because there is an equally significant change in environment, culture and way of life. Not every obstacle would impact our emotional and mental well-being, but we may find some of the following a bit more difficult to deal with than others.


Looking for appropriate housing, employment, and health support while understanding and dealing with legal requirements for entry and settlement in the new country is stressful. Moving home is stressful: moving your belongings from one place to another is daunting, but add crossing borders via land, sea and air, and you may have paperwork for that too! I am sure I’m not the only one who did not know what to do first: a bank account, a house or a job? Or try to convince a landlord to rent out their house without proof of income or open a bank account without proof of address.

Loss of support network

The loss of a support network when moving abroad was the one thing that hit me the most. Not only I missed home (some days more than others) with the type and quality of emotional support that is familiar to me. I also missed the opportunity to socialise and access practical support. There were relocations where social networks were easy to access, and my support back home didn’t feel so needed. Whilst there were times, all I needed was a hug from a dear one and tell me everything was going to be alright. 

I am aware this is not necessarily a reality for everyone. There are plenty of stories of people who recreated a family outside of their family unit in the new country and have created more fulfilling relationships abroad. I am talking about the process of creating that support network that can feel tiring and lengthy at times while experiencing varied degrees of isolation. 

Health considerations

There are challenges to our general well-being and mental health when moving abroad. On one side, we need information on the type of health risks we may incur in the new country and what preventative measures (such as, vaccines or drugs) we need before moving.

But once we are there, other factors come into play and may impact our mental health. This can take many forms, such as:

  • Difficulty accessing medication, particularly medication prescribed in the previous country of residence.
  • Difficulty navigating the local health system to book an appointment.
  • Difficulty finding the right ingredients for a specific diet

We may also face discrimination, symptoms not being understood as presenting differently in the host country and coming against services that are not cultural-sensitive enough to support us.

Language barriers

How many of us had a good enough level of the host country’s language but not enough to understand the minutia of employment or housing contracts, explain the complexity of our feelings, or embrace the new culture through cultural subtleties communicated through jargon and accent that you have not learnt (or even heard of) anywhere else.  


Discrimination when living abroad is a reality for many of us and can impact our mental health. Discrimination can look like being misunderstood for how we speak and move (tone and gesticulations can mean different things in different countries), not having available cultural-sensitive support services in your area, or being treated unfavourably in your workplace or when looking for housing. 

Discrimination can lead to feelings of shame, worthlessness, and social isolation, potentially contributing to low self-esteem and a negative self-image.

Recognising how stress can impact our mental health when living abroad

It is important to be able to recognise how stress can impact our mental health when we move/live abroad because it can help us understand and manage potential risks to our mental health. Recognising stress can help us find coping strategies and self-care routines that can sustain us physically, emotionally and psychologically while going through the ebbs and flows of living abroad. 

There are different cues to stress. Some of them are relational (we may feel more withdrawn or tolerate less), existential (loss of meaning, control and direction), physical (aches and tension), emotional (irritability, worries, anxiety), cognitive (racing mind, unfocused, forgetful, distracted) or behavioural (alcohol or substance use).

Recognising these stress cues can is essential for ensuring an easeful transition to the new environment when moving/living abroad.

If you need support with your mental health, I can help

How living abroad can boost our mental health

Enough was said about how moving/living abroad can impact our mental health for the worst, and there is rarely attention to everything that improved our well-being. 

Living abroad improves our mental well-being by making us resilient ( by equipping us with tools and with coping strategies to adapt and overcome stressors) and creative (new ideas and ways of thinking are stimulated by being immersed in what is unfamiliar and different).

Over time, living abroad can increase our sense of purpose by broadening our social network, creating opportunities to learn about other ways of living and providing us with new perspectives on life. This will contribute to our personal growth through learning a new language, developing new skills and expanding our social circle to people we would have never met if we had stayed in our home country.

Moving abroad is a second chance to make a better life for ourselves. We learn we can have agency to bring changes in our life, achieve something different, and meet our needs better. No one denies it isn’t easy, but it’s possible, and it can be repeated over and over again. Fundamentally, we learn how to move abroad.

Living abroad teaches us that stepping out of our comfort zone, although scary, can lead to something good (cultural enrichment, new experiences, a new appreciation for different foods, architectures and landscapes). 

Living abroad definitely improves our nonverbal communication skills, making us better communicators and listeners, which can foster better relationships. 


Living abroad can be an incredible experience, but it can also be challenging, and it can impact our mental health.

By talking openly about mental health while living abroad, we can break down the stigma surrounding mental health and encourage others to seek the help and support they need. It can also allow us to build a stronger sense of community and connection, which is particularly important when we live away from friends and family back in our home country. By caring for ourselves and each other, we can make the most of our time abroad and create a positive, fulfilling experience for ourselves and those around us.

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