Irish emigrants’ mental health: ‘I lost my charisma, my social skills, my confidence’.
Moving overseas can be exciting but for some can lead to anxiety or depression.
Amsterdam: language and cultural differences can be a challenge, Photograph: iStock.
In the late 1940s, while anthropologist Dr Kalervo Oberg was researching the social organisation of the Tlingit Native American tribe, he began to notice a common affliction among anyone suddenly transplanted abroad.
Oberg coined the term “culture shock” to explain the phenomenon: an anxiety that arose when a person was removed from their own societal symbols and signals on which “all of us depend for our peace of mind”. Symptoms ranged from simple homesickness – “that terrible longing to be back home, to be able to have a good cup of coffee and a piece of apple pie” – to anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness.
In the decades since, a large body of research has emerged in psychology and sociology analysing the impact of moving abroad on mental health. It shows that while living in another country can offer countless new possibilities, it also brings a unique set of challenges.
Matthew moved from Ireland to Amsterdam last year when his partner found work there. He had a good job in Ireland, but didn’t want a long-distance relationship. Before moving, he was excited at the prospect of working in the Netherlands. He started learning Dutch and his new life began well. “The first few weeks were great,” he says. “My colleagues were very nice and extremely helpful. Everything was new and exciting.”
His calendar was packed with get-togethers and social functions, but as summer began to fade into autumn, “life got a lot tougher”.
Even though the working language of his organisation was English, he felt isolated. Conversations around the office were in Dutch. “If they wanted to speak to me directly, they would speak in English. I didn’t feel part of the team or organisation. I got really self-conscious, constantly wondering what people were saying. It was even worse when I heard my name in conversation. I was trying to keep up with work, but it was difficult. I constantly had to rely on my colleagues, non-stop questions . . . I felt useless.”
Social differences were also a struggle. In the Netherlands, most people rely on an agenda for social appointments. It’s not uncommon to schedule a friend for a coffee in a week’s time, or dinner in three weeks. “Gone was the possibility of meeting a colleague after work for a drink without a week’s notice,” Matthew says.
Towards the end of the year, “things became a bit of a blur”. Matthew’s partner was travelling a lot with work, his mother was in hospital back in Ireland, and Dublin, just an hour’s flight away, felt like the other end of the world. He felt alone in the Netherlands and felt he couldn’t talk to family back home about his experiences, because he didn’t want them to worry.
“There were days where I would barely speak to anyone, even though I worked nine hours a day. The days were rolling into one . . . I felt like I was losing my mind. Even when I did speak to people, no one understood me at all . . . I lost my charisma, my social skills, my confidence – I wasn’t the person I thought I was.”
Matthew had never experienced mental-health issues in Ireland. He believes his difficulties were brought on by his interaction with Dutch culture, which was so unfamiliar to him, even though he says he has met many wonderful people there.
Things have got easier with time, however, and he now feels he is adjusting. “Talking to someone is key,” he says. He spoke to his manager, who offered a life coach and a mentor. Both these people helped “with the difficult task of integrating into a new culture”. He continued learning Dutch, which he believes has helped immensely.
Matthew’s experiences are familiar to Caitríona Rush, a cross-cultural consultant who helps businesses and individuals overcome the challenges of living and working abroad. “At some stage, most people who move to a different country will go through some form of culture shock,” she says. “The extent to which you feel it varies.”
Cross-cultural consultant Caitríona Rush.
Problems come when people start to internalize cultural differences. “People begin to read between the lines and they pick up messages that aren’t actually being sent.”
In these cases, people may start to experience moodiness, sleep problems, eating disorders and alcohol misuse. “If you’re not happy in yourself for whatever reason and you have those kind of cultural issues, not dealing with them and resolving them, they just tend to fix and grow in your mind.”
Culture shock can be divided into four distinct phases, Rush explains. At first, everything is new and exciting. This initial honeymoon phase lasts four to six weeks. This is usually followed by the negotiation stage, in which cultural differences lead to misunderstandings and create anxiety and frustration.
Next is the adjustment phase, when “people begin to understand their own cultural values and the adopted culture a bit more”.
Finally, there’s the adaption phase. “Overall, you’re happy, you know how things work, you’ve settled in and made your life here.”
Though the phases are distinct, people experience them in different ways. Some may transition quickly, while others can become stuck in the negotiation phase for years. Rush advises asking questions: “What are your list of rights and wrongs? Where do they come from? Why do you believe in that? And understanding those, and understanding that when you talk to a Dutch person, you have your Irish sunglasses on. When you’re brought up, you’re taught to treat people the way you want to be treated. When it comes to culture, you treat people the way they want to be treated.”
Cultural differences and feelings of isolation become more troubling when they are compounded with existing vulnerabilities. For various reasons, emigrants are slower to seek help for their mental health. “It’s not that expats suffer more [from mental-health issues], it’s just there are more stresses in their lives, more triggers, that will make maintaining mental health more difficult,” says Anna Costello, psychologist at Kühler and Trooster, a Dutch clinic specialising in expat mental healthcare.
Psychologist Anna Costello.
Costello believes expats can find it difficult to navigate an unfamiliar health service: “It’s more complicated when you’re living in another country.”
But once people seek help, they are usually “very successful” at overcoming mental-health difficulties, and many clients are “in remission, or they fully recover”.
Kate has first-hand experience with both the Irish and Dutch mental-health services. She struggled with addiction, and the deaths of both parents before leaving Ireland. She moved to the Netherlands after falling in love with a Dutch man. As an experienced traveller, she thought the transition would be relatively smooth, but she found it difficult to integrate.
“I struggled to make friends outside the family circle. I struggled to find meaningful work . . . I thought it would be easy. I had lived in Asia and Australia, where I didn’t have a culture shock, but here I really did on how you should behave in society and how things are done. I found it almost polar opposite, and I didn’t expect that it was going to be.”
Eventually, her new environment became overwhelming. “Moving here and feeling so isolated triggered some past emotions I hadn’t dealt with properly ... I started drinking – a lot. The drinking got worse and worse, and suicidal thoughts were creeping in. I felt extremely lonely. I hated the dark and cold weather. Eventually, I had a drinking blackout one night – this was becoming an all-too-often occurrence – and I tried to take my own life.”
Kate sought help from the health services in the Netherlands. The Dutch healthcare system is one of the best in Europe, topping the 2017 Euro Health Consumer Index (Ireland came 24th). Even so, Kate was frustrated at the waiting time to see a professional. “When you feel like you’re losing your mind, you don’t want to be on your own . . . They gave me a time of four to six weeks. I said I’m not going be alive in four to six weeks.”
Once in the system, Kate found Dutch healthcare to be “very good”. In addition to talk therapy, she was offered art and touch therapy for a year. She also went to an addiction clinic, though the services they could offer were limited because of her expat status.
Things are going better now. “I went through therapy, I stopped drinking, which helped. I got a kitten, so I’m not lonely. I have something to look after.”
Kate also learned Dutch, and believes learning the language is key. When she reflects on her experiences, she recommends breaking the taboo and talking about it. “That’s what was blocking me at the start. And once you can talk to people, you find out that most people have the same problems.”
When Dr Oberg first wrote about culture shock, he said the traveller would always be treated as an outsider. But he also believed they could adapt and develop two patterns of behaviour, with the two existing in harmony. When it came to the possibility of overcoming culture shock, he was sanguine: “Many recover beautifully.”
Rolls-Royce Cullinan: the Chris Harris verdict.
The call from Rolls-Royce to come and drive its new SUV was unexpected. In fact, the vestige of teenage rebel still lurking in me was mildly affronted that Rolls felt my rude and sarcastic utterances about this machine on social media weren’t enough to warrant a lengthy ban from Goodwood HQ. “We think we can change your mind” was the confident line from Rolls. I wasn’t so sure.
Nor did I think it really mattered. There is not a single human being who will decide whether or not to buy a Cullinan based on this or any other review. It has no rivals and will almost certainly not enter into the life of a normal motor car. It is arguably the ultimate car paradox: a boutique 2.6-tonne off-roader.
But, sadly, it had to be built. There are far too many tasteless rich people for it not to exist. But before I froth with even greater indignation at the existence of an off-road Rolls, I need to admit one thing – Rolls-Royces were, from the very start, off-road vehicles. Not because they were intended to venture into the weeds, more that not many paved roads existed at the beginning of the last century. A good deal of Rolls-Royce’s reputation as the builder of the finest automobiles on the planet is founded on the cars’ indestructibility when the going got tough. So, if any modern brand deserves to build a massive great off-road truck, then Rolls-Royce Motor Cars does far more than any of the other tasteless b*****ds that have done the same. I don’t much like posh-SUVs – you might have guessed as much.
The Cullinan does not share its bodyshell with any other car. This is the boast Rolls makes to separate it from its badge-engineered so-called rivals, but at £250,000 this car is so much more expensive Rolls really needn’t bother. This is a Phantom shell jiggled about to suit a slightly different purpose: it is immensely large and strong, and a fine base for what must end up being the most refined, luxurious soft-roader ever invented – if the Cullinan is not to have been a failure.
Cullinan? The largest diamond ever mined, parts of which are now mounted in the crown jewels. Nope, me neither. The engine, however, I do understand. This is a recalibrated version of the Phantom’s vast 6.75-litre twin-turbo V12 and, despite the 2,660kg kerbweight, is claimed to drag the Cullinan to 60mph in five seconds. The car is suspended on vast air spheres which allow the ride height to be altered according to the terrain. There are numerous interior layouts from five-seat utilitarian to four-seat limo-luxury.
And then there is the way it looks. I had seen pictures and have now seen it in the flesh. I have driven it many miles and have listened to the people who designed it tell me why it looks good. But it doesn’t. I think a Rolls-Royce should reek of elegance, and its proportions should leave you breathless with their perfection, just like the Phantom VII did back in 2004. But this car doesn’t. I’ve said before that the subjective world of design and styling is something I prefer not to pass judgement on, but not a single person has told me that they like the way this car looks. “Better than a Bentayga” is the best I could extract from someone, which is a bit like boasting that you have less hideous genital warts.
And I reckon I can now explain what I think has gone wrong. This car looks like a Chinese knock-off, one of those motor-show aberrations we used to see a decade ago when the Chinese just took the p*ss. And you only get a sense of how bad it looks when it’s parked next to a Phantom or a Ghost.
But, of course, once you’re inside the thing, you can’t see the exterior – which rather calms the soul as you attempt to start the engine for a second time because it is so damn quiet you had no idea it was already running. You step up into the seat (I do in a Boxster), and the steering wheel rim is a little thicker than expected. The front seat proffers a great big hug, and as you accept it, you nose around the dials and functions and think, “This all seems to be in order.” The column shifter snicks down and then the Rolls SUV experience begins.
The silence is just wonderful. So much of modern automotive engineering is spent making things sharper and more sporting that driving a machine for which quietness was a priority is a tonic. Tyre and suspension noise are minimal, thanks to 100kg of sound deadening around those areas, and foam-lined tyres. On small throttle openings, the motor is silent, and you get the distinct impression that the Cullinan only allows its 12 pistons to be heard on bigger inputs because it’s rather fun. That all-important ‘step-off’ action – the amount you have to push the right pedal to make the car move away from stationary – is well judged and the view out is good. Junctions aren’t the easiest, though, because there is so much Cullinan ahead of the windscreen.
The low-speed ride is a thing of wonder, even on the optional 22in wheels – no other SUV comes close to this level of serene progress. Increase the speed and the silence continues, but you can upset the suspension – seams and joints beat the air spheres and shimmer through the cabin. It’s not unpleasant, but this is the point at which the Phantom moves off into an altogether different ride category.
The quantity of performance on offer is more than adequate. I have no idea if the Cullinan matches the acceleration claims, but I can tell you that if it were any faster you wouldn’t be able to stop for the next corner. Nor would it actually want to navigate that corner. This car cheats the laws of physics, up to a very specific point. And, like the many cars these days that trade in such tricks, when you reach that point, you’d better be very-bloody-careful. Yes, the Cullinan has the full suite of electronic chassis aids, but none of them stop you arriving too quickly. The front washes out and you perspire. I still can’t decide if that makes the thing impressively fast or unimpressively understeery.
There are a few other issues, too. The cabin is expensively trimmed and, thankfully, isn’t dominated by a 27in plasma screen. But the controls are spread about the place as if the design brief was to keep children busy during long journeys by looking for the massage seat button (answer: under the driver’s door armrest; the heater buttons are on the centre console). It’s all a bit haphazard. The centre armrest lifts to reveal a useful storage box that feels like it belongs in a mid-range Renault and, accepting these were early production cars, the view down the flank and its vast metal window surround is totally ruined by not being correctly aligned. And the boot isn’t very big.
Chances are, the people who buy a Cullinan won’t give a fig about most of those things, bar perhaps the small boot. What they will have purchased is a car with no obvious rivals, with unmatched road presence, that is actually quite capable when things turn rough. Yes, it feels entirely wrong to take something so valuable into the undergrowth, and there are no locking differentials or especially knobbly tyres available, but it’s more than adequate for what will be asked of it.
Judged purely by the way it drives and the way it makes you feel behind the wheel, the Cullinan is a worthy Rolls-Royce. But did it really have to be so unattractive? I suppose we’ll never know, and Rolls will sell every one built, so good luck to them.