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F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2
n September 2010, Secretary of State Hillary
Rodham Clinton issued a memo to employees of
the State Department and U.S. Agency for Inter-
national Development, encouraging them to seek
mental health support when needed. Though
long overdue, her declaration was a welcome ac-
knowledgement that State and the other foreign
affairs agencies must do more to support their overseas em-
ployees.
The daily stresses of an international lifestyle — trying
to learn new languages, bumping up against cultural habits
and being far from home — are challenging enough. But
then add the need for overseas missions to please Washing-
ton policymakers, who may have little sympathy for pres-
sures in the field, and the drive Foreign Service personnel
feel to ensure that every assignment enhances their career.
Such ambition often means taking assignments in places
they may not want to go, or where they cannot take their
families. Compounding the stress, there may be little de-
marcation between work life and personal life, particularly
(but by no means only) at unaccompanied posts.
When Secretary Clinton issued her memo last year, it was
warmly received. Unfortunately, though, the bulk of the at-
tention paid to the issue since then has centered on em-
ployees sent to posts in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Certainly such postings have a disproportionate impact
on those serving there, and Sec. Clinton was right to draw
attention to the special mental health needs of that demo-
graphic. But expatriates living and working in danger zones
are a minority; most people who choose a life abroad live in
relatively calm places and bring their families with them. It
is this large group who most lack the mental health support
they need.
Keeping a Stiff Upper Lip
“There is a certain demographic attracted to the expatri-
ate life,” says Sean Truman, a clinical psychologist in Min-
neapolis. “People who choose to go overseas are generally
brave, autonomous self-starters. On some level, they like
the idea of the adventure of testing themselves against the
newness of a different place.”
But as Dr. Truman notes, “When problems do arise ... it’s
almost a point of pride for expats to be tough in challenging
situations, and that seeps down into a feeling that they have
to be tough in more intimate situations, like depression, or
spousal abuse, or their daughter’s eating disorder. There is
less evolution in the way mental health support is viewed
overseas, and expats often cling to their ‘stiff upper lip’ ideal.”
The stereotypes of Foreign Service life run particularly
H
OMESICK
: S
UPPORTING THE
E
MOTIONAL
L
IFE OF
E
XPATRIATES
F
OREIGN AFFAIRS AGENCIES NEED TO DO MORE TO ENSURE THAT OVERSEAS EMPLOYEES
AND THEIR FAMILIES ARE OFFERED APPROPRIATE CARE
,
PRIVATELY AND CONVENIENTLY
.
B
Y
A
DRIENNE
B
ENSON
S
CHERGER
Adrienne Benson Scherger, the daughter of a USAID Foreign
Service officer, grew up traversing Africa. Since then, she has
been a “trailing spouse,” a mother to third-culture kids, a
Community Liaison Officer and a freelance writer who often
reflects on expatriate life. Her publication credits include the
Washington Post
,
Skirt!
magazine and the
Huffington Post.
I