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Expatriate mental health: Key things to know before you go

Many people living or working abroad are woefully unprepared for how the challenges of being an expatriate might affect their mental health.

In a recent Aetna International survey, a whopping 94% of respondents said they were unconcerned about encountering mental health issues while away — even though our global health insurance claims data and independent research studies alike show that those on international assignment and their family members can often struggle with issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.1

Don’t let that be you. If you’re taking an overseas assignment for work or starting a new life abroad, arm yourself with these top tips to prevent or address common mental health issues before you go.

1.      Be prepared

The more you know about your soon-to-be country of residence, the easier the transition — and easier transitions keep stress levels in check and are good for mental health. Long before you board the plane, learn as much as you can about the region’s cost of living, climate, major laws, documentation you might need to prove your marriage or education status, social/religious customs, safe transportation options, prevalent health risks, banking choices, Internet access, cell phone service and other aspects of daily life there. If your spouse and/or children are going with you, look into schools, health care, social activities, job opportunities and other information needed to help them make friends, familiarise themselves and settle in. You might also do well to consider how you will handle the new and possibly increased responsibilities of your new assignment along with everything else.

2.      Start language and culture lessons now

Doing your job well won’t be good enough if you can’t communicate properly with your new boss or understand how to relate culturally to your new co-workers. And it’s awfully hard to successfully handle such daily activities as food shopping and navigating public transportation if you can barely speak the local language. Jump-starting lessons now gives you more confidence when you arrive — and confidence helps reduce stress. If you’re moving to a region where you speak the local language or English is in common use, understanding business etiquette and local customs will help you adjust.

3.      Set realistic expectations

No matter how exciting your new life abroad may seem, being away from your family and friends and experiencing changes in your normal routines and lifestyle is likely to cause some culture shock. Think about practicalities such as how much you can expect to save while you’re living abroad, so you keep your long-term life goals in mind. Plan ahead by expecting some of that to happen and figuring out ways to address it that will work for you.  

4.      Find out what mental health services and resources will be available

Before you go, check with your employer or international health benefits provider to find out what type of employee assistance program or other support may be available to you and your family members, and what’s included. Keep program contact information and links to online resources handy so that it’s easy to reach out if you’re struggling.

5.      Set up your support network

Keeping time zones in mind, identify a few people from home who wouldn’t mind being your frequent sounding board through texting, social media messaging or phone calls while you’re away. Schedule regular face-to-face times with your loved ones and friends using Skype or other technologies. And ask your employer or international health benefits provider to see if they offer virtual health counselling — a terrific way to have someone to talk with who understands your culture, speaks your language and is available when it’s most convenient to you.

Few respondents to our survey regretted their decision to move abroad, but some said they had underestimated just how eye opening it would be. Had they been better prepared for the challenges ahead, there may well have been a lower impact to their emotional health and well-being along the way.

For people considering moving abroad, our content library has articles on some of the key issues expatriates experience and how best to handle them. We regularly provide pre-trip planning advice to members on assignment, around occupational health and how to ensure assignment success. Existing Aetna International members can also access our health library for specific information on different medical conditions and disease information. To find out more about Aetna International private medical insurance plans and pre-trip planning support services, speak to one of our expert consultants.

For further reading on being prepared for an overseas move, we recommend:

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1 Pioneering Change: Understanding Health & Healthcare for Glob­ally Mobile & High Net Worth Local Populations. Aetna International, October 2016.

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