In this blog, I explore what can be an unrecognised population who may show up in your counselling practice: those returning from working and living abroad.

We are living through unprecedented times, and the demand for counsellors, coaches, and therapists is great. For some people who work abroad, their time overseas is ending abruptly and unexpectedly. I recently read an article about the overseas workforce in Dubai, and how many people are returning to their passport country as their businesses deal with the economic fallout caused by Covid 19. It would seem that this is a pattern repeated in many countries, as economic uncertainty ends many overseas contracts.

This will lead to difficult emotional transitions for repatriating expats and their families. We know that grief and loss make up an inevitable part of the overseas experience, with high mobility being one of the features of this lifestyle. For the counsellor specialising in working with this clientele, and in working with Third Culture Kids* this will provide unique challenges. But we feel it is important that counsellors, coaches and therapists in their “home” countries are aware of this returning population and have the training and knowledge to work effectively with them.

Case Study (fictionalised)

Margaret and her husband Jacob have been living in Singapore for the last 5 years. Margaret’s passport country is the USA, and Jacob’s passport country is the UK. They have two children, Lucy, aged 7, and Sam, aged 14, who are both dual nationals. The children have always attended International Baccalaureate International Schools, first in Dubai and then in Singapore. Margaret and Jacob have suddenly found their jobs under threat, and after some very difficult discussions have decided that their only option is to move to the UK, where the family have only ever visited on holiday. They leave abruptly, without the chance to say goodbye to the people and places that mean so much to them. They have very different feelings about this; Jacob is glad to have the chance to introduce his family to his home country and Margaret is very concerned that they are having to relocate without jobs and financial security. Lucy is worried about starting at a new school, and Sam is angry that he will have to switch educational systems. He will be unable to complete his International Baccalaureate Diploma and will instead enter the British educational system at a crucial time without really understanding the exam system. Upon moving to the UK, they struggle to find jobs, not only because of the economic climate caused by Coronavirus, but also because UK employers do not understand (or value) their international experience. Jacob is beginning to show signs of depression, and Margaret is becoming increasingly anxious.

As a counsellor, reflect for a moment about how you would work with each of the different members of this family. Although fictional, elements of the case study are quite common, and a knowledge of the expat profile, as well as how repeated cycles of transition and grief and loss impact upon this population, is essential for the counsellor. It is also very important that the counsellor have the knowledge and skills to differentiate between expatriate grief and depression. Additionally, it is well known that Repatriation Shock can be one of the most difficult stages of culture shock to deal with, and this is a particularly poignant time for counsellors to embark upon specialist training in working with this population.

The situation with Covid 19 may lead to some difficult and abrupt repatriations; it is likely that many of these returned expats will seek psychological help upon their return to their home country. It is worth repeating that these returned expatriates will have lost their home, their jobs, their access to friends and familiarity all at once. It is therefore important that counsellors, regardless of whether or not they have lived and worked abroad themselves, can understand and effectively work with this population.

It is for these reasons and others that we have developed our course, Understanding and Working Therapeutically with Expatriate Clients. It is designed for counsellors, coaches, and therapists to understand and develop expertise in working with this unique population. In the course, we explore the lifestyle and effects of living and growing up overseas, and we look at the developmental needs of children growing up in this environment. We look at transition, which is one of the main features of working with this population. There are often abrupt departures, if not by clients directly, then by their friends and close colleagues as their contracts end or they leave to attend to emergencies at home. We then explore specific counselling interventions that can be used when working with this population.  We examine how key psychological and emotional aspects of expatriate living may impact individuals and families, we identify and evaluate factors that affect expatriate mental health and wellbeing, and build on therapeutic skills, introducing a variety of interventions developed to serve the needs of this unique population. And, very relevant to the current situation, we explore Repatriation Shock.

During this time of worldwide upheaval, it is very important that counsellors understand the needs of the globally mobile population who may have to return to their passport countries quickly and unexpectedly. We hope that counsellors around the world will look to enhance their skills and knowledge in order to help this often unacknowledged population on the bumpy road ahead.

Stay well, Melissa

*children who have spent their developmental years growing up abroad as a part of the overseas working culture, many of whom attend international schools

It seems like yesterday that we as a family found ourselves in a situation that created turmoil within our expat community. It was May 2004, and ongoing unrest in our host country had seen the swift and untimely dispersal of expatriates to distant corners of the world.

One moment we had 700 children in our school and the next, we were down to just nine. My husband and I did not have access to our passports, but our children, aged six and three, did. We put them on a flight with someone we trust back to the UK, with a letter saying who they were and that their grandparents were waiting in the arrivals lounge. That day was the longest day in our lives. When the plane landed and we heard they were safe, the relief was huge. We were able to join them three weeks later. I had promised my eldest that I would collect her from the local primary school at the end of the day and, after a delayed flight, a cancelled coach ride and a fifty mile dash in a taxi, we made it with just fifteen minutes to spare. Of course, we spent the summer wondering if we were going back, what we would be going back to and if our friends would be returning. But by late August everything had settled, and we returned to our host country.

It is, perhaps, easier to understand the challenges facing those who leave suddenly and are unable to return. New country or repatriation, new job or unemployment, new schools, abandoned belongings and sometimes much-loved pets. The losses are endless. It is less easy to validate the feelings of those who return. Counting our blessings, jobs intact, we did not anticipate the challenges. We expected to return to the familiar, yet everything had changed. In its place was a blurred sense of home. Roads had closed, barriers were everywhere, roadblocks, and car checks. There were new rules and routines to follow. We no longer had access to certain foodstuffs, activities, favourite places to visit. One of the biggest changes was the human landscape. People had left, a few new people had arrived. For my children, their classrooms were unfamiliar, friendship groups broken, known and trusted support systems unavailable. It was as if we had moved without moving anywhere and that was difficult to come to terms with. The life we had known had gone. Our choices were to keep moving forward or leave.

A few years later, a reunion took place. One night, several people assembled in a wine bar in York, England – a rabble of older looking former staff, and grown up students who had been children when it had all changed. Stories and memories were shared. We laughed and there were a few tears as we realized that we had weathered the storm. We had not lost touch with each other, the world we shared had just paused. The goodbyes we did not say back then became important hellos. As expats, we can choose to focus on the amount of times we say goodbye, or we can also focus on the thousands of times we say hello.  We can dwell on losses or we can use them to shape what comes next.

Although the numbers at the reunion represented only a fraction of our school, they taught us something important, that the invisible bonds created through shared experiences are stronger than we may ever believe. You see, expat friendships run deep. My children are confident that they could go to most cities in the world and meet up with someone from their past, and just continue from where they left off. For expats, even with the passing of time, it is easy to merge a yesterday with a today.

So it is, in this current pause, that we are all sharing a life experience we did not plan for. It is challenging, but let me introduce you to what could make a difference to how you navigate through this turbulence. Firstly, time! As Expats, we have learnt that time is our friend. In time we got used to new ways of living, crafted friendships, rebuilt support systems, became more confident about our reinvestment in life. Secondly, people! Expats are experienced in dealing with unexpected life events but that does not mean we do not feel the impact. We just learn to look to each other for support. If there is something good to emerge from our present situation, it is the opportunities for connection and reconnection this journey has afforded us. So today, make a conscious decision to hold on to the connections you have made or rekindled. Do not say goodbye at the end of this crisis. Keep saying ‘Hello’. As change is inevitable, there will always be challenges on some scale. Time and connection are important, because together they give us the sense of belonging necessary to navigate the turbulence of life.

Stay Well, Kathy.