THE MENTAL HEALTH OF EXPATS IN THE NETHERLANDS
Most people picture the Netherlands with bike paths, windmills, a progressive culture and healthy work-life balance…but, as much as moving to a new country can be an enriching experience, living in the Netherlands as a foreigner can be challenging too.
The first few weeks after moving to the Netherlands from your home country are likely to be positive and exiting, visiting some of the Netherlands ‘must sees’ and embracing the Dutch culture. When everything is new, we usually see the positive side of things and get all worked up and exited about the change.
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Typical issues faced by expats
Research show that expats are twice as likely to face mental health issues in comparison to people who have never lived abroad. In addition, 90% of expats feel isolated after moving abroad. In 2018, a study showed that 50% of expats were at moderate to high risk of depression (Truman, Sharar & Pompe, 2018).This higher risk of depression can, among other factors, often be explained by the lack of support from friends and family.
Moving to a new country comes with challenges which are very common among displaced individuals. These challenges include the following:
Stress and anxiety caused by being in a new environnement
Loss of identity
Feeling of not belonging
Even though these issues are common, they should not be underestimated or ignored, as they can develop and threaten mental health.
The particularities of being an expat in the Netherlands
For expats in the Netherlands, there is also the fact that the Dutch health care system happens to work quite differently than most countries and it can be difficult for foreigners to reach out for professional help when it comes to their mental well being.
A few other factors make it difficult to adapt to this particular country.
Open windows, close doors
Even though most expats tend to find Dutch people to be quite friendly and easily approchable, they also report finding it much more difficult to create deeper connection with Dutch people and to build long lasting friendships.
In 2015, the HSBC Explorer report showed that the Netherlands gets a very good overall ranking, but on factors such as quality of life and ease of integration, the Netherlands ranks at the 29th place, behind Mexico and Japan. Over the years, the majority of respondent to the HSBC survey repeatedly mention the difficulties of making friends with Dutch people and that both the culture and the language barrier make integration even harder.
In other words, creating those much needed meaningful relationships is not so easy with the locals.
The Dutch directness
The infamous Dutch bluntness is also often mentioned by expats and is experienced as being extremely forthcoming on many topics, even with strangers. Dutch people will usually offer their opinion freely and in a manner that most non-Dutch people are not used to. This can easily destabilize those coming from countries where forms and a certain etiquette are appreciated. It can also be experienced has harsh, especially when trying to establish yourself to a new country.
It may help to know that the Dutch directness partially comes from the Calvinist mentality which is found in the nord part of the Netherlands. The south part being the Catholic part of the Netherlands, is therefore less influenced by the Calvinist mentally, and people there are usually less direct.
The language barrier
Another typical problem faced by expats is the language barrier. On one end, the fact that most Dutch people are pro-efficient in English is helpful for newcomers but on the other hand, it makes it even less motivating to learn Dutch. As consequence, even expats who have been in the country for many years have given up on learning the language and are therefore less likely to befriend locals.
Tools to improve your mental well being
A strong social support system is key for a good mental health. Therefore, it is crucial for expats to meet people they can relate to in order to feel like they belong. It can be hard to integrate established Dutch social circles but fortunately, the Netherlands is a very international country and there are many opportunities to meet different people.
There are in fact many Facebook groups of people from the same nationality who organise events on a regular bases. Meeting with people from the same country can be incredibly helpful since they share the same cultural references and there are no language barriers. Platforms such as Meetup or Internation are also great ways to meet people who have something in common with you which is crucial in order to get this sense of belonging.
It’s also important to be aware of pre-existing or new mental health issues because they will likely manifest themselves if you are in a vulnerable position. If you have a history of depression or anxiety and have been experiencing symptoms since arriving in the Netherlands, make sure to remain active and to keep up with a healthy day and night rhythm. Be disciplined about going outside everyday, even if you don’t feel like it and stick to a routine which works for you.
If you find that these tools don’t make a difference, that’s a sign that you need professional help. It is then crucial to talk about how you really feel and to find a safe space to externalize your emotions.