Let’s Talk About Mental Health: Living Abroad

  • Article
  • Culture & Community

Mental health issues can impact anyone, regardless of age, gender, or background.

In honor Mental Health Awareness Month (May), GovCIO has initiated a new, ongoing, employee interview series to help foster a more open dialogue about mental health in the workplace. As a part of this series, members of the GovCIO team are reflecting on some of the most prevalent mental health topics today, along with tips for managing stress and anxiety.

Spotlight on Living Abroad with Nicholas Renton

GovCIO’s English Language Instructor, Nicholas Renton, discusses the impact that living abroad can have on your mental health, overcoming culture-shock and how to stay positive.

I work in Saudi Arabia as an English Language Instructor for GovCIO at King Fahad Naval Academy. I know from experience that being outside the U.S. poses an entirely different magnitude of mental stressors.

Much of this is familiar from the literature of culture shock: honeymoon, frustration, adaptation, and acceptance. At first, the new country is fascinating and new. Later, the omnipresent difficulty of doing that which is once familiar—shopping and banking, for example — builds up, and frustration ensues. After that, ex-pats learn to adapt to their foreign surroundings. Finally, they accept the new culture and can overcome the phenomenon of culture shock.

"I find the best antidote to these pressures is the assumption of a stance of active gratitude."

Nicholas Renton
English Language Instructor

However, for those whose family remains behind, the stress multiplies. Many times have I been awakened at odd hours of the morning to attend to family emergencies and quarrels—alas, often ineffectively. I lived through the 2017 Hurricane Harvey flooding while separated from my family. My wife and daughters evacuated my house in Katy, TX, while I was abroad, unable to help. Fortunately, my house remained dry, and my family was taken in. Finally, the travel restrictions of the Covid era kept me from my family for two years.

The unique culture of Saudi Arabia also requires its own mental readjustment. While much has changed here in terms of female driving, more relaxed enforcement of prayer times, and fewer restrictions on clothing, living in the kingdom compels you to accept the norms here. Pork and alcohol are still strictly forbidden, and public male-female interaction is rare. Saudi driving habits, while lately improved, require greater caution.

However, I find the best antidote to these pressures is the assumption of a stance of active gratitude. To be frank, this often leads me both to view life in the United States more critically and Saudi Arabia more positively. I look to my brother, a father of three children whose job was eliminated after a corporate takeover; such unbridled capitalism is not done here. My younger daughter has had acquaintances both murdered and dying of drug overdoses. The low crime and strict drug laws here minimize the chances that I might endure the same. I lock neither my car nor my suite here; crime is extremely low. I once left 4000 Saudi riyals (more than $1,000) unattended in a dilatory ATM here, but I returned 15 minutes later to see the bills sticking out for retrieval, while a concerned crowd looked on. I doubt that would happen in America.

As an employee of GovCIO, my colleagues and I are provided housing, health insurance, utilities, and internet as part of our employment contracts here. Three of us share the use of a company-provided car. Many of my colleagues get a subsidy to educate their children here. The only tax I pay is the Social Security deduction and a 15% value-added tax on all purchases. (Oh, and gasoline costs about $2.35 a gallon, and no ATM in the country charges extra fees.)

Mind you, Saudi Arabia isn’t a paradise on earth: it’s hot as Hades six months a year, and the landscape here is barren and litter-strewn. The fresh food offerings leave much to be desired. I miss singing in my church choir, but, thanks to the internet, I connect with members of my Texas congregation. In sum, I have reached the point of acceptance of life here, but it hasn’t always been easy. Yet by counting my blessings I accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.