Teaching abroad is a great adventure. It is an adventure that requires a lot of preparation before and after your arrival at your new destination, but what about during your stay? Many first-time ESL teachers don’t consider one big issue that might unpack itself during a long-term travel adventure: Depression. Yes,I said it, depression. Living abroad depression isn’t the most popular topic to discuss when preparing to teach abroad, but the possibility of it just can’t be ignored.
Why you might feel depressed while teaching abroad
There are many reasons why you might become depressed or experience a slight case of “the blues” while you’re having this awesome experience better known as “The Teach Abroad” experience. Some of the causes may be obvious, while others not so much. “Traveling is my passion, why am I having negative feelings while doing what I love? This isn’t suppose to happen!” you may say to yourself. Or you may think, “Traveling and teaching is my dream job, I would never feel glum. How could I ever feel depression after moving to another country?”
Don’t worry, you aren’t the first person to have such an experience and most people don’t expect depression to happen to them while living abroad. Unfortunately, depression has a valid passport, too.
Teaching abroad is a job. Starting a new job, settling into a new workplace, interacting with new co-workers, and learning a new workplace culture can lead to depression if you don’t take care of yourself. Along with being the new foreigner in town, you may also garner a lot of attention from the students and from the locals. The attention may be a lot to handle at first if you’re not use to being the local superstar.
When preparing for your new teaching position abroad, you are often given great advice such as “Research the culture, prepare for culture shock, and be open to all new experiences that will come your way.” While this is relevant advice, the topic of mental health rarely comes up. Many new teachers don’t even recognize that they are not themselves, as they are not aware of the warning signs. These negative feelings often present themselves during the beginning of your stay when all of the initial excitement is happening. But if you take a little time to prepare for the worst case scenario, you will be better able to handle it so that you can get back to being you. Here’s our best advice on how to handle depression while teaching abroad.
Know what types of feelings you might have
Change can be hard, even if you prepare for it. One main reason why you might feel depressed during the initial stages of being abroad is culture shock. Once the initial euphoria has worn off and you settle in to your new real life, you must learn to adjust to your new environment, your new home, and your new workplace. The adjustment period can be one of the most difficult periods, and therefore, very overwhelming for many people. So don’t worry, you’re not the only one having a hard time.
Loneliness is another major cause of depression after moving to another country. Even the word “loneliness” conjures up a sad image in your mind. When you first arrive at your destination, you are over the moon with happiness because you are in a new place with new people and new things. But after a while the reality sets in that you’re in a new place with new people and new things. You’re not at home anymore, which may lead to feelings of anxiety. Discovering your new home can be daunting, especially by yourself. Depending on the country, you may also have to overcome a major language barrier. Dealing with a language barrier in a new place with strangers could cause feelings of severe isolation. It’s like the perfect storm for Hurricane Depression, but don’t worry, we have a nice strong umbrella for you. Just keep reading!
Last, but not least, is familiarity—or lack thereof. A lot of living abroad depression comes from missing your home country and culture, preferred foods, family, and friends, all of which may affect your ability to be present and to enjoy the moment. We get it. It’s tough.
Being aware that depression is a possibility can help you to avoid it or at least lessen the blow of it when depression does decide to rear its ugly head.
6 tips for when you can’t shake those teach abroad blues
1. Remember what you have already accomplished!
Leaving your family and friends behind, moving to a foreign country (maybe one that you’ve never been to before) starting a new job ,and adjusting to a totally different culture is a major life decision—and it’s an accomplishment in itself ! Don’t beat yourself up if you have trouble embracing the unknown in the beginning stages of your adventure. Intentionally removing yourself from your comfort zone is a challenge that many people wouldn’t voluntarily do. It is a courageous action that should be recognized as such by others and yourself. Bragging about your accomplishments normally isn’t sociable acceptable, but this is an exception. Be kind to yourself as you have already accomplished a great deal by the time you step off the airplane.
2. Visit the local international center/tourist information center.
The local international center is a great place to visit when settling into your new country. Most major cities should have one, if your city doesn’t have one, try to locate the tourist information center. The tourist information center mainly focuses on—you guessed it—tourism. Here, you will find exciting information about cultural events, annual festivals, tours, and famous tourist spots.
Depending on your city, the tourist information center may be a little crowded, so if you’re looking for more individual attention, your best bet is the international center (if there is one!). The international center is also more likely to have traditional event information in English as well. Along with the international center and the tourist information center , you can find event information online or through smartphone apps like Meetup.
The international center tends to offer a wider range of services.It is an invaluable resource, kind of like a best friend who is always there to help you, and to answer your many questions. It will help you to navigate the confusing logistics of your new life, and may offer many types of resources including language courses, counseling services, suggestions for English speaking doctors and dentists, information on informative and social events, foreign books, and assistance for dealing with local tedious procedures that no one likes such as taxes or general paperwork and so much more. This place offers everything!
The international center is, more importantly, a great place to meet people. Finding great friends can brighten up any situation. There are often many casual events held there or you can find local social activities listed in the international center. The international center may also offer a monthly newsletter with updated events and workshops listed as well. If you’re not careful, this place might become your new favorite hang out spot! Once you arrive and get settled, don’t be a stranger, make it a priority to visit your local international center.
3. Participate in traditional cultural activities.
Now that you’ve settled in, take the time to see what your new area has to offer in terms of traditional charm and culture. After all, this is the reason you decided to teach abroad in the first place, isn’t it? Oftentimes, there are many festivals, ceremonies, celebrations, and activities that you can get involved with during your free time.So, you really can’t say that , “There isn’t anything to do here.” In some cases, there are too many things to do or to attend. Some of the activities are free while some may have a small fee. There’s something for everyone so find something that fits your personality and interests. Participating in the local events is a great way to obtain a better understanding of the culture, the people, and the history of a place. This suggestion should not be taken lightly as it is one of the most effective strategies for lifting your spirits! Being an active participant in the culture, and daily life in general, is the best way to overcome those cloudy days when you might want to second- guess your decision to teach abroad.
Your job is to teach English, but you are also there to learn and to grow. Being active and learning is a great remedy for any kind of depression. So, don’t sit on the sideline during your teach abroad experience—get out and participate!
4. Get out and sightsee!
Remember the reason why you decided to teach abroad in the first place. Teaching English abroad enables you to travel to places that you may have only read about or seen in a movie. Take advantage of your new reality. Using any possible free time to explore your new environment is the best use of your time when trying to lift a cloud of depression. That movie and chocolate bar can wait! Getting out of your home, or just taking a break from lesson planning, to explore the beautiful treasures in your own backyard is a helpful reminder to enjoy every minute of your life abroad (because this luxury isn’t accessible to everyone).
Exploring a new place on your own can also help to build your self-confidence. Whether you’re using a travel guidebook or a local’s suggestion, get out and explore!
5. Allow yourself an initial adjustment period.
Packing up and moving to a different country to teach abroad is a major life decision and a major accomplishment once completed. So please, give yourself a nice big pat on the back! That being said, once the move is complete and you’re becoming familiar with your new life, your new job, your new students, and the new stresses, don’t forget to remain calm and breathe. Allowing yourself an adjustment period is a healthy way to handle the new stressful elements in your life. This self-imposed readjustment period might ultimately lower your chances of experiencing depression at all.
This self-directed grace period can be applied not only to your daily life abroad, but also your teaching position. Expecting to be the perfect English teacher from the start is unrealistic and damaging to your self-confidence. Expecting to be perfect from the start at any new job—be it teaching abroad or sales—is unrealistic. Expecting to be immediately comfortable with every new aspect of your daily life is also unlikely.
Give yourself a break during this time and allow yourself time to adjust to your new work environment, to new social norms, and to the culture. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, to be awkward, and to be vulnerable. It’s going to happen anyway. So, just be okay with it. It is during this period that the most growth occurs. So, at the end of the day, be patient with your present self—your future self will thank you!
6. Carry this patience and self-love with you throughout your entire experience.
Once the initial adjustment phase has subsided, it’s unlikely your life abroad is going to feel 100% comfortable and familiar. By its very nature, it will continue to be unusual, to be exciting, to be frustrating. It’s the ups and downs of travel that really allow for developing that juicy self-awareness that we all know can be incredibly useful. Be patient with yourself as the tides of change come and go. Practice self-love—always—to get you through the days when you don’t feel quite like yourself.
It does get easier. And it will be worth the effort.
Additional resources to support your mental health
Good mental health is vital for a successful and memorable teaching abroad experience. Upon your arrival in your new home, there are often many administrative, personal, and professional tasks that take all of your attention and focus. Don’t allow your mental health to be pushed to the sideline. Here are some additional resources, information, and tips to help you along with your journey if, among all of the wonderful new experiences, new people, and new activities, you ever find yourself feeling blue.
- Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Mental Health and Self-Care EBook
- Mental Health America website
- National Institute of Mental Health website, Depression Basics
- National Institute of Mental Health website
- University of South Florida Counseling Center’s Mental Health Wellness Abroad Brochure
The resources listed above are just a few to get you started on your journey back to being yourself . There are many resources available to help you deal with depression while teaching abroad. Whether you’re feeling on cloud nine one day and miserable the next day, don’t ignore how you feel. Always remember to put your well-being as a top priority. If you don’t, who will? If you’re at your best, you can be the best teacher that you can be and make the most impact!
Now get out there & face those D-E-M-O-N-S
Teaching abroad is the chance of a lifetime. I know that this sounds cliche, but it’s true! You have the opportunity to travel to a new place, meet lots of new people, form lifelong friendships, develop new professional skills, represent your country, and you get the chance to make a positive impact on someone’s life. What’s not to like about this opportunity? During your transition phase, you may have some good days and some bad ones too. Don’t dwell on the bad days for too long. Being aware of how your body and mind responds to the difficult days in a new environment, away from home, family and friends, is the first step to overcoming depression and taking back your power!
Feeling depression after moving to another country to teach is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to the best of us. Finding healthy coping methods to handle these “rainy days” allows you to focus on what’s most important—your new life and career abroad! Remember all that you have accomplished, participate in the local culture, sightsee, and just be plain old kind to yourself; these tips can help stop or decrease these unhealthy, but natural, feelings. While teaching abroad, always remember to take care of your physical and mental well-being. You have an incredible professional and personal opportunity in front of you. Don’t miss out on it!