Mental Health Challenges Of Returning Home From Volunteering Abroad
Volunteering abroad, no matter how long for, can have so many benefits for your personal and professional life. For example, it looks great on your CV, you can network, make new friends, and of course, you’re helping to change the lives of others for the better.
However, for most people, there comes a time when you must pack your bags, ship off your belongings, say goodbye and return home, leaving your volunteering role behind. Initially, the thought of returning home can be very exciting; after all, you’ll get to see your friends, family, possibly even pets that you left behind.
But over time, you might find that your return home has triggered some negative feelings and mental health challenges that you weren’t expecting - and that’s OK. In this guide, we’re going to look at some of the key mental health challenges that you might face and how you can help to combat these.
Loneliness when saying goodbye to new friends
During your time volunteering, you’re likely to make lots of new friends, and in some cases, you’ll be spending most of your waking hours with these people. As such, they quickly become a close and important part of your life.
Saying goodbye to these people, whether colleagues, locals or the people you’re helping, is never an easy task, especially if they’ve made an impression on your life. It can lead to feelings of sadness and loneliness.
However, in these situations, it’s important to remember that goodbye doesn’t always have to mean forever. Social media and smartphones have made it much easier to stay in contact with other volunteers and people you’ve met along the way. Not only this, but if you work through a big registered charity, you can keep in touch to ask for updates on the people and projects you had to leave behind.
Tiredness and burnout from working hard
Being tired can have a big impact on your physical and mental health; it can lead to an increased feeling of stress and depression. If you’ve just come back from a long project and you’ve given all your time and energy to your volunteer work, you might feel burnt out.
You might also find that you’re suffering from jet lag if you’ve returned from halfway across the world. This, too, can contribute to sleep deprivation and exhaustion. Upon your return, try not to make too many plans with friends or family, as tempting as it can be. Instead, you should give yourself a few days to rest and recover and get back to your local timezone.
Dealing with reverse culture shock when you get home
When you first arrive at your volunteer project, it’s likely that you’ll have dealt with a bit of culture shock, especially if you were in a country and culture that is very different to your own. But rarely do we discuss the impact of reverse culture shock.
This is when you suffer from a certain level of culture shock when returning home. Think about it, if you’ve spent weeks, months or maybe even years in another place, getting to know the people, customs and cuisines, you’re going to have a readjustment period when you get home.
This can be a really strange feeling and one that you’re not expecting. It can lead to feelings of stress, sadness and isolation. You could be left feeling like you don’t belong at home. So it’s important to acknowledge that these feelings are normal and to go easy on yourself. It might take a little bit of time for you to fall back into old habits and routines and adjust to being back in your home country.
Becoming stressed about your future
Before you went away, you probably put a lot of time and thought into your new life as a volunteer abroad - but now you’re back, what’s next? If you’ve been gone a while, your routine is likely to have been completely disrupted, and you might be coming back without a place to live or a job. Even if you have these things, you might be feeling confused or worried about what the future holds, and this can lead to increased levels of anxiety.
This is perfectly normal when your routine has changed drastically, but over time, you can begin to get excited about future prospects once again. This might be getting a new job or even planning another trip a few months down the line.
Whatever the case may be, those initial feelings of stress can be managed by thinking carefully about what you want to do next and setting yourself small, manageable goals to get you on the right track.
Processing the things you saw
If your volunteering position saw you helping vulnerable families, children in war-torn nations dealing with the effects of climate change or saving animals from abuse, you could be dealing with a lot of emotions. During your time abroad, it’s likely that you’ll have had to keep your emotions at bay and get on with the job at hand.
So when you get home and finally come back down to earth, you might need some time to process the things you saw and the situations you dealt with during your volunteer work. This can take a bit of time, and you might find you want to talk to someone about what’s on your mind. Just remember to be kind to yourself and allow yourself to process what’s going on.
Simply missing your life abroad
Last but certainly not least, we’ve all heard about the holiday blues; when you get back from a holiday and struggle to readjust to normal life. Well, these effects can be amplified if you’ve been volunteering abroad for a longer period of time.
Think about it; you’re leaving behind friends, accommodation, people you’ve helped and an entirely different life. This can lead to strong feelings of sadness, loneliness and depression. Again, remember that these feelings will subside over time as you get back to your life at home and start looking to the future for your next exciting adventure.
Written by Stuart Cooke