‘Expats face higher rates of anxiety and stress’

This Wednesday is the United Nations' first ever International Day of Happiness and to mark the event The Local spoke to mental health professionals working with Spain's expat community.

'Expats face higher rates of anxiety and stress'
The United Nations wants governments and individuals to focus more on happiness. Photo: Christer Rønning Austad

The United Nations has decided that everyone should be happier, or at least try to be.

In a resolution last year, the international body said the pursuit of well-being and happiness were fundamental human goals.

The UN also said policymakers should factor in happiness alongside economic and environmental goals.

But Madrid-based UK counsellor Chris Neill is not entirely sure about the concept. 

"I find it strange, first that we feel we should have the right to be happy. This is, after all, one of the roots of psychological problems — that we think we should be happy and that, if we're not, there's something wrong with us."

Meanwhile, Kristin Ketelslegers, originally from Belgium and also based in Madrid has a more positive take on the UN idea: "I think it's an excellent idea.

"The day reminds us that we can work towards happiness in our everyday lives — something that it is easy to forget".

She did add, though, that she thought World Happiness Day had a particularly Western slant, and that happiness was not that evident in the rest of the world.

The Local spoke to both of these therapists recently to find out the particular issues facing expats in Spain.

"Homesickness and social isolation are among these," said Ketelslegers.

"There is a lack of support for expats so it's more difficult to cope with new circumstances because they don´t have family or friends nearby."

Neill noted, meanwhile, that people's reasons for emigrating played a large role in how they reacted to moving country.

"In my experience, the people who do best are those who are running away from something," he said.

"This could be people who didn't feel at home where they came from, or because they wanted an adventure."

At the other end of the spectrum were people who didn't have a choice.

"In my practice, I see lots of spouses of people working in Spain, or their adolescent children.

"Adolescence is a very difficult age and being in a foreign country is tough on this group."

Neill stressed that relationship break-ups were also particularly difficult for expats. "One person usually keeps the friendship circle the couple have built up, while the other person can become socially isolated."

"This can be very tough for that individual." 

Both therapists The Local spoke to agreed that depression and anxiety were the most common problems among the expats they saw in their practice.

"Being away from your normal social circle is particularly difficult in cases of depression," said Ketelslegers.

"I suspect many people end up going home when this becomes a serious problem."

Neill noted, too, that rates of depression — or the feeling that life is meaningless — could be up to 50 percent higher among expats.

He went on to say that anxiety was also not unusual.

"People with anxiety stop enjoying activities that used to give them pleasure," he said.

"They don´t want to go out anymore and they start ruminating on the past or worrying about the future." 

"Expats might also find they have issues with the past and family to work through," said Ketelslegers.

The two therapist both agreed that mental health services were not difficult to access in Spain, but that there were some serious issues.  

"There's a bit of a bureaucratic mill you have to go through," said Ketelslegers. "This can take a while."

Neill also felt the services were not very well supported: "In Spain, you might only see a therapist for one hour every two to three months, which is not enough if you are dealing with serious issues."

Ketelslegers pointed out, too, that not many Spanish doctors spoke other languages fluently enough for expats.

"It's very hard to find someone who can speak fluent English or German or French, for example.

"But it's critical that therapists are able to do so. They are not there just to listen, but also to respond and give advice.

"It's also very critical that people can express themselves in their own language when they are in therapy," Ketelslegers added.

This was why many expats ended up choosing private practice, said the Belgian therapist, who can speak English, Spanish and Dutch.

Kristin Ketelslegers can be reached here, and Chris Neill can be reached here.

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