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What is wellness? Mindfulness and mental health

This short article is part of the What is Wellness? Expat Family Wellness Survey 2018, in which we spoke to 36 families living around the world to explore what ‘wellness’ means to expats.

Most of the families that we spoke to felt that mental health was not as well recognised or supported in their new country as they would have liked.

“People don’t give enough thought to their mental health, it’s all about the physical side”  — Bibhuti (Indian in Canada)

In countries such as India and Dubai mental health issues still have a stigma attached and it can be difficult to get effective treatment.1

Support and understanding

Our families felt Canada had a supportive approach to mental health which formed a positive element to the health care system.

“The local health service in Toronto encourages healthy body and mind.”


Nigeria is a difficult place to raise mental health issues; culturally it’s not widely accepted. “People need that support, not just people like us but local people too.” — Witter (Brits in Nigeria).

“The mental health side of things is so important but there’s still a stigma attached to it here, it’s a shame thing. That’s bad because we’re so aware of that. We’re in a great place but if it wasn’t like that I don’t know if there would be much understanding or support (in Spain).” — Mortleman (Australians in Spain).


Stress is widely recognised as an important issue for the expat community, though none of our families said they were suffering from it. Living and working away from home can make even relatively easy things seem quite hard and language challenges can exacerbate this.

“Having to live your life in a different culture and in a different language can be exhausting”

In Mexico, while mental health isn’t top of the agenda for most people, what is important is maintaining happiness by making time for friends and family and having a good work/life balance. Mexico was also seen by some to be a more spiritual place and that this was a cross-over between mental health and cultural norms.


Attitudes to mindfulness fell into three broad camps. Those who:

  • saw it as a meaningful and distinct part of their lives;
  • saw it as a meaningful concept but more broadly defined and not specific to any ‘activity’ and
  • were more dismissive of it as a concept.

Even for those who embrace the concept, mindfulness is subjective and more variety exists in its definition than wellness. To some it is about feeling happy and content with your situation and being appreciative in that moment. To others it’s more spiritual — which sits in both religious and non-religious circles. The Bibhuti family saw mindfulness simply as “spending time with each other as a family, also friends and our wider family”.


For the Hargreaves family (Americans in India), spirituality is an important aspect of day-to-day life, coming from a Hari Krishna background.

“We wanted our kids to have a similar upbringing which was part of the reason we moved. Spirituality plays a big role in our lives”

Waqas and Safia Javad don’t practice mindfulness in the form of yoga or meditation but “practice prayers — which is a form of meditation. Religion is a part of our daily life.”

Holistic approach

The Sek family (Chinese in Singapore) had a more holistic (and yet practical) view, saying: “it’s mental and spiritual, but it’s also time away from the baby!” So, mindfulness isn’t just a mental state: having time as a couple outside everyday monotony is just as important for achieving a sense of mindfulness as maintaining general mental health. This helps to maintain their relationship with each other, as well as the overall family’s happiness.

A few of our families said that they meditated and ring-fenced time away from everyday life to it. The Mortlemans (Australians in Spain) said that they had tried meditation as a family: “We’ve just started to try meditation as a family, the girls find it a bit funny and start giggling but that all helps too. It’s part of being a healthy person.”

Click on the links below to read what our families said about various topics:

Download the ‘What is Wellness?’ Expat Family Health & Wellness Survey 2018

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