Stigma-Smashing, One by One

In support of an effort by the group Bring Change 2 Mind to erase the stigma faced by those dealing with mental illness, my fellow expat blogger Aisha launched an ongoing series of posts on her site Expatlogue earlier this year entitled ‘Breaking the Code of Silence’.

Bravely sharing her own disturbing memories from younger days, the pain and suffering Aisha endured are heartbreaking. Yet they are all the more poignant when contrasted with her life today as a healthy, happily married, caring mother of three and talented writer making a name for herself.

photo of depressed woman by David Castillo Dominic on www.adventuresinexpatland.comI committed to writing a piece in support of this stigma-smashing effort, and began mulling over ideas. Two recent articles on seemingly unrelated groups – celebrities and expats – have provided new insights and interesting perspectives.

The first is a February article on the Psychology Today website by Deborah Serani regarding the phenomenon known as  ‘Celebrity Coming Out of Mental Illness’. Cynics might see the (still meager) parade of  high-profile individuals such as Catherine Zeta Jones, Russell Brand and Harrison Ford proclaiming their struggles with various forms of mental illness as simply more fodder in the public relations machine. Serani has a different take.

Such candid pronouncements help to reduce the stigma of mental illness, striking a public blow against prejudice and mistreatment on behalf of those similarly afflicted. Not all sufferers are in a position to share their stories for fear of reprisal in their personal and professional lives, so it is well appreciated when others do so.

At the same time, celebrity ‘outings’ of this sort offer hope to others of the possibility of enjoying a healthy, happy, productive life if proper treatment is sought. In addition to the reassuring nature of knowing they aren’t alone in their diagnoses, there is a strong sense of ‘if he or she can accomplish all that while dealing with depression, anxiety or fill-in-the-blank, then surely I can do the same in my own life’.

The surprise in Serani’s article is the statistic that one in five in the US will suffer some form of mental illness at some point in their lives. Of course there will be those who chalk that up to the supposedly typical predilection of Americans for fixating on squishy ’emotions’ and ‘feelings’ and a preoccupation with ‘happiness’, but I suspect that many other countries are right up there with the US in terms of mental illness if they take the time and effort to measure.

Which leads us to the second article Are Expats at Risk of Developing Mental Health Problems? reported last week on the Expat Info Desk website. [This was itself based on the Michele Rubin article on PRWeb Expatriates at Higher Risk for Mental Health Issues and Substance Abuse Problems.]

A study conducted by Chestnut Global Partners and The Truman Group found American expats to be at higher risk for internalizing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, externalizing ones (e.g., hyperactivity, attention deficit, conduct and impulse control) and substance abuse than their US-based counterparts.

The study’s co-author, David Sharar Ph.D., noted the impact of stress on assignment failure rates, often stemming from ‘cultural differences and demanding workloads’. Sharar went on to say that the findings ‘underscore the need to design programs and provide services that mitigate the challenges of living and working abroad.’

The recent 2011 Global Relocation Trends Study report from Brookfield GRS has also highlighted the role of family dynamics in making or breaking expatriate assignments with top challenges being partner resistance (47%) and family adjustment (32%).

No surprise there. These studies underscore what expats have known anecdotally for years. They are gaining attention and for good reason: expatriating and repatriating across cultures can be difficult. Working your way through the highs and lows of the transition process can leave many battling feelings of alienation, dislocation, anger, frustration, loneliness, lack of identity and rootlessness.

Certainly most expats come through on the other side just fine or without lasting damage. But there is no doubt that some struggle. Expatriate employees and family members alike can be affected deeply by relocation.

Yet the resources to help support them before, during and after transition differ greatly depending on one’s experience, running the gamut from decent to nil. I for one found far greater transition support from the international school Son and Daughter have attended than anything Husband’s organization offered.

No wonder Sharar’s co-author, Sean D. Truman Ph.D. LP, notes the ‘explicit need for programs and services that are comprehensive in scope and sensitive to the personal, interpersonal and professional dynamics that contribute to the overall wellbeing of expats and their family members’.

At first glance these articles – one about celebrities and the other about expats – have seemingly little in common beyond the issue of mental illness.

But consider this: if the first article highlights the benefits to others of outing oneself regarding mental health issues and the second demonstrates that expats are at increased risk compared to their home population for encountering stress, depression and anxiety, then it stands to reason that by shedding the light on mental illness in general and in expatriate life in particular we can go a long way in smashing the stigma while encouraging people to seek necessary support and treatment.

We need to get the word out, at home and abroad. We need to be talking about these issues, writing about these issues, reading about these issues and sharing about these issues.

The growing body of expat literature reflects as much, as do efforts by Aisha and others to share their experiences. That’s a trend we can all welcome.

[Image credit: David Castillo Dominici, portfolio 3062 Freedigitalphotos.net]








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