We discuss why some expats are tempted by alcohol and how cultural differences can make it difficult to find help.
Back home it’s easier to confront the problem and get help. It’s easier to approach a doctor, priest or therapist about an addiction when there are no linguistic and cultural barriers in the way. It’s less scary to confront the boss if both of you are living in the same town, as compared to a skilled expat in whom the company has high expectations. The tendency among expat addicts is to conceal their addiction, suppress their sense of shame, avoid discussing the problem or getting professional help, and to indulge in ‘self-medication’.
Alcoholism support networks and treatment
In western countries, the support networks for addicts have been around for generations; Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935. Alcoholism is classified as a disease, which means western health insurers can cover the costs of treatment. Most GPs have experience dealing with addicts and there is a well established network of treatment centres in most countries. Above all, families, friends and work colleagues often provide the backup and support that are instrumental in helping so many addicts recover.
Druming therapy at Castle Craig
None of this is available to the typical expat, whose whole lifestyle is constructed away from the familiar support networks of home. Behind the seemingly idyllic expat lifestyle of wealth and success often lies the grim reality of addiction. Writing in The Times, Jan Battles describes ‘the stereotype that won’t go away’. “Ireland’s reputation as a hard-drinking nation is borne out by new figures showing expats living in Britain are more than twice as likely to die from alcohol-related causes than the general population.”
If the situation for Irish expats in London is difficult, imagine how hard it can be for expats living in Eastern Europe or the Middle East where there is less tolerance and understanding of mental health problems in general, and about addictions in particular. In many Arab countries there is zero tolerance of alcoholism, while in others the policy towards alcohol is ambiguous, and even asking about professional help for an addiction could be risky. (Click here for a fascinating insight into the “return of alcohol” to Baghdad).
Art therapy at Castle Craig
Treatment for alcoholism in Romania
Dr. Eugen Hriscu, a Romanian psychiatrist, recently told me: “Addiction therapy needs well established support networks, like the family, and many expats in Romania only have a loose network of friends – and a lot of the socializing is done in places where drinking takes place. The prospect of giving up drink raises the prospect of being cut off from one’s only friends.”
What I have found in Romania – that there is a small network of highly skilled, well trained, English speaking addiction therapists – may well be true for other less developed parts of the world. Help is often closer than we think. The big problem with addiction is the reluctance to ask for help, and the power of denial.
AA help in different countries
Find a local AA chapter in your country of residence: