By Andrea McKenna Brankin
“Am I going crazy?”
I get that question a lot from fellow expats who are dealing with stress in their lives.
We are weathering so many changes living here, be they the stress of moving, changing from a house to condo, new schools for the kids, cultural changes like having a helper, not having a car, having a traveling spouse, or having to change, or even quit, a career because our dependent pass restricts what we can do. There are myriad issues we can explore in our ‘Expat Headspace’…
It’s stressful. It can be isolating. It can be hard mentally. But you’re not alone! And if you think you’re going crazy while trying to settle in here in Singapore, please know that this is normal and may not be a permanent blow to your mental state. But if it is, there’s help for that, too!
One of the most important things is to be aware of changes that may require medical attention. Second to that is self-care; making sure you are taking meaningful steps to manage your mental state daily, even if it means meeting a new friend for coffee, Skyping a relative or just taking a walk in the park.
Luckily, there are experts in Singapore who deal with expat issues, including several therapy and counseling agencies, who understand where you are coming from. Maria Luedeke, counselor, psychotherapist and executive coach with Aspire Counseling, says anxiety and depression are cousins, in that when one is present for a length of time, the other can crop up as well. In the expat life of ever-changing points of reference, one often experiences both.
She notes that there is something called a “U Curve” that exists when expats relocate. “There’s a Honeymoon period after moving where things are exciting and novel, then a dip where things are not novel, just annoying and different from what they have previously been used to. Slowly expats usually begin to adjust to the new social and cultural norms of their new host country. All this happens while expats are removed from extended family and friends, trying to create a ‘home’ for spouses and children, and tackle new work situations. So, mood swings, anxiety and sadness are pretty normal in this context,” says Luedeke.
Despite that, she advises that one should seek help during any prolonged period of depression, anxiety, mood swings or other intense emotional states that interfere with the ability to function or interact with others. Noticeable behavior changes may be in eating, drinking or shopping. Other common changes may include sleeping too much or too little, not leaving the house, having relationship problems at home, or disconnecting from regular support systems. Luedeke reassures that mental health professionals can help assess and provide coping skills and strategies, as well as developing good self-care programs.
In my expat experience, self-care programs can include therapy (I do equine-assisted therapy, for example), or seeing a medical doctor for care. Contact with others is also important; maintain connections with friends and family back home, join a local social organization, like a PTA at your child’s school, the American Women’s Association or the American Association of Singapore, all of which will do things, such as celebrate familiar holidays like Thanksgiving or Fourth of July. These may give you a chance to pursue some new social outlets, like a crafting group, tennis team or international choir, among many other options.
So, to go back to the original question: Are you going crazy? Maybe a little, but a lot of it is very understandable and justifiable. And the bottom line is that with more focus on mental health in society, particularly in our home countries, it is definitely the right time to look for some help and support.
Luedeke suggests expats seek to be genuine and prioritize their wellness through self-care, seeking support networks and reach out for professional mental help when needed. This way, one can enjoy the positives and learn how to manage the negatives.
“I’m often struck by how easily expats will ask one another for recommendations for accountants, hair stylists and dentists, but they shy away from asking for recommendations about mental health professionals. We actually experience emotional pain in the exact same way we experience physical pain, so stop suffering in silence and reach out for help!”
If you or know someone is in severe crisis, go to a hospital emergency room, known as A&E in this country. Call 995 for an ambulance and/or call the Samaritans hotline 800-221-4444, which has trained counselors who can advise you.