Last summer, I submitted a 47-page thesis exploring the mental health functioning of career medical professionals serving overseas. I spent almost two years gathering articles, reading books, and attending conferences surrounding the topic of cross-cultural adjustment as it related to depression and anxiety among expatriates. This all sounds so academic and professional, huh?
Let me tell you a secret. It was COMPLETELY SELFISH. The only reason I spent so much time researching data and reporting statistics was because I didn’t want to be a statistic.
I’d watched it happen to too many people.
I had friends who had been chewed up and spit out by their experiences on the field. I’d read blogs of disgruntled religious workers who had completely lost hope in God’s design for His body. I’d seen the glazed-over look on the faces of foreign servants who were completely ineffective in their ministries.
I prayed the Lord would spare me from this, but I knew the odds were stacked against me. Cross-cultural adjustment is no joke, and it does crazy things to our minds and our bodies. For those of us in the throws of cultural disequilibrium, I’ve compiled a list of 5 things that I hope will help us all remain sane, serve well, and stay long in our work overseas.
- Exercise spiritual discipline.
Expats with a clear vocational call and greater spiritual life satisfaction who regularly practice spiritual disciplines tend to experience greater adjustment to the field. Those with lower levels of spiritual maturity report lower levels of work-related outcomes, little social interaction, and worse relationships with teammates (Kimber, 2012).
This tells me that ministry-related tasks and work responsibilities are not NEARLY as important as protected quiet time for study and meditation. Men AND women need the space to be in the presence of God. And please hear me challenging any man reading this to work extra hard to provide this space for the women on your team, especially those raising small children at home.
- Recognize when you’re stressed.
Davis (1969) said “even those intellectually prepared for the new situations facing them experience cultural rub, a nagging irritation which brings on cultural fatigue” (p. 23). People respond to stress with physical symptoms (e.g. headache, stomachache, or diarrhea), psychological symptoms (e.g. anxiety, depression, or difficulty concentrating), and behavioral symptoms (e.g. driving fast, overeating, or excessive spending). I don’t have to tell any of you about these symptoms. Many of us eat, sleep, and breathe them.
I find it most interesting that social support is the single most effective means of dealing with stress. So, invest in online communities like Velvet Ashes, A Life Overseas, and Taking Route. Invest in your physical communities like team and international fellowships. Keep a finger on the pulse of your stress level, and adjust your work load and vacation time as needed. Yes, FOR THE LOVE…TAKE A VACATION. But do come back. 🙂
- Focus on your family.
Researchers have reported that there is a strong relationship between a person’s cultural adjustment and his or her marital relationship (Bikos, et al., 2009). In fact, in a study of couples moving overseas, the working spouse reported steadily declining marital satisfaction (in addition to declining mental health functioning) over the course of their first year abroad. Jansohn (2013) and Foyle, et al. (1998) also reported that work-related burnout and premature repatriation play a role in marital breakdown.
Read this: Transitioning abroad DOES affect our marriages. Which affects our children. Which affects our friends and coworkers. We can’t sacrifice our families on the altar of ministry. It’s our families that help us function and thrive overseas. And just another plug: If you are in a family, invite the single workers of your community INTO YOUR FAMILY. Share your marriage…share your children…share your dinners. You will all be blessed by it!
- Don’t wait on member care—help yourself.
To date, there has been no psychological test normed for our particular population of religiously motivated expatriates. That means that all of those psych evals you did before moving abroad? Yeah…they may not have actually predicted your cross-cultural adjustment very well. And all of those member care staff? They DO care about your wellness. But the reality is that they aren’t with you on a daily basis to check in on your functioning abroad.
So be your biggest advocate. I don’t mean hole yourself up in your bedroom for weeks at a time with tubs of ice cream and all the seasons of Parenthood. I do mean reach out to someone when you’re feeling a little off. I remember writing an email to our care team last summer saying, “You’re not asking, but I’m telling: I AM NOT OKAY.” That email spurred an immediate response that put me back on track psychologically. It’s perfectly acceptable to fall off the horse, and even more acceptable to tell somebody your lying in a mud puddle of cultural crap. Which leads me to the last point.
- Reverse the stigma against mental health issues.
In 1970, Stringham wrote, “It is just as foolish to think that a person with a serious psychiatric or emotional problem can take care of it only through prayer as it is to think that a person with an acute appendix can take care of it by prayer alone…It is just as honorable to seek psychiatric help for psychiatric problems as it is to seek medical help for a broken leg. The sooner this is recognized by religious people, the less trouble there will be in the future for people seeking necessary psychiatric help” (p.1).
Before his time, much? It seems we can still learn so much from this statement 45 years after it was written. We aren’t superhuman. We aren’t untouchable. Living overseas turns us inside out and exposes all of our junk. And that sometimes requires some professional help as we work through what we’re learning and how we’re changing. You aren’t alone. We’ve all been there. Welcome to the party! We’re a pretty fun, screwed up crowd. Especially when we’re mentally healthy.
If you have questions about the articles cited here, I’d be happy to email them to you. If you’re struggling to find the grace to buy the can of Dr. Pepper at the import store, this is me telling you to go buy the case. Stockpile Dr. Pepper if you need to…you will have more bad days.
Those of us who have answered the call to move overseas are few and far between. We don’t have the manpower to supply backup when we neglect our spiritual and physical needs. I pray we can all lean more into our spiritual Provider as we welcome the physical community He gives us. Sanity for all, my friends!