Why expats struggle with mental health in the Netherlands — and what you can do about it

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The idea of living in the Netherlands can be magical: spinning windmills, winding bike paths, healthy work-life balance, and progressive culture. 

But sometimes, being an international in the Netherlands isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Living in a new country can be a great experience — but it can also take a significant toll on your mental health. 

Uprooting your life and landing in a whole new country and culture isn’t a small feat. For the first few weeks, you’ll likely ride a high: buying and riding your first bike, exploring the local supermarket’s wonders, and trying to wrap your throat around the Dutch guttural g’s

Everything will be new, shiny, and idyllic. You may experience the odd bout of homesickness, but there will likely be enough excitement to keep you going.

Back home, your life will likely appear glamorous and cosmopolitan: living in Europe, drinking coffee on terraces, meeting new friends from across the globe, and hanging with locals.

You’re living in a new, sustainable, innovative, and historical country and living a dream life — what could go wrong?

The darker side to being an expat in the Netherlands

Expats often pretend that their new lives are pure perfection — perhaps as a justification for uprooting their old lives. But research shows that the picture isn’t all rosy.

Expats face twice the risk of mental health conditions, compared to those who never move abroad. In the same vein, almost 90% of expats experience feelings of isolation after moving abroad. Pretty rough. 

To add salt to the wound, expats are often blindsided. A 2016 survey found that only 6% of expats were concerned about mental health issues before relocating while a 2018 study found that 50% of expats surveyed were at moderate or high risk of anxiety or depression.

Living in a new country can be a shock to the system. Image: Freepik

The pandemic only made this worse, with a 2021 study finding over a third of expats reported their mental health suffered further. 

Expectations can often be on a collision course with reality — and while it hits hard, it’s also to be expected, according to Drs. Jeanine Souren, former senior psychologist at Dutch mental health clinic, U-center.

“There are a lot of new changes. New location, new language, new home, new people,” Souren told DutchReview.

To make matters worse, the Dutch healthcare system can be particularly confusing for foreigners. Just speaking with a psychologist requires navigating a maze of appointments, referrals, and insurance inclusions first. 

So we’re saving you the time and the headache. We sat down with Drs. Souren from U-center to discuss what issues expats can face, how to deal with them, and what to do when you need help. 

What is U-center? 

U-center is a specialised mental health clinic located in the idyllic countryside of South Limburg, near Maastricht. It’s a clinic with a difference: U-center’s focus is on treating the person, not just the condition.

Specializing in expats and Dutch clients, U-center is committed to providing individuals with the best treatment for long-lasting results.

Major mental health problems facing expats

When expats move to the Netherlands, they’re often caught unawares by depressive symptoms, says Souren. “There are a lot of new changes.”

She explains that the initial lack of a social support structure can make a move challenging to deal with, leading to anxiety. “It is more difficult to cope with the challenges because you’re on your own.”

It’s especially hard for expats because, without friends and family close by, you need to turn to professionals for help.

But the Dutch healthcare system works differently to most countries. Expats are often lost about how to get the help that they need — and if they can find it on their own, they’re often caught out by the infamous Dutch directness, which often feels unnecessarily harsh. 

“When we have people contact U-center, it’s because it can remind them of healthcare at home,” says Souren.

“There are like-minded people who understand where you come from, and our treatment staff are very aware of the challenges that expats face. And while the Dutch are typically very direct, our treatment staff at U-center are very aware of empathy and compassion.”

The majority of U-center’s staff are also expats themselves, so they understand the struggles of living in a different country. 

Being in soft, cosy surroundings can do wonders. Image: U-center/Supplied

A multitude of new or pre-existing problems often faces expats. To name just a few, internationals might experience: 

  • Culture shock
  • Language barriers
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Isolation/homesickness
  • Stress from moving/adjusting
  • Pre-existing mental health issues
  • Loss of identity
  • Addictions 
  • And depression and anxiety

What can expats do to try to head off potential issues? 

The best foundation for mental health is building a robust social support system. “Without a feeling of belonging, people can become unhappy,” explains Souren.

Of course, it can be notoriously difficult to break into established Dutch social circles. Luckily, the Dutch are not your only option. 

“There are a lot of opportunities for expats living in the Netherlands. It’s quite an international place; there are definitely a lot of opportunities out there with different people,” Souren explains. 

To broaden your social circle, consider reaching out on expat Facebook pages, connecting with people on social media, or looking at Meetup for events that you may be interested in. 

What can expats do if they are struggling?

New or pre-existing mental health issues can crop up at the worst of times — and often, people aren’t quite sure what to do when it happens.

If you’ve been experiencing depression or anxiety after moving to the Netherlands, Souren says it’s important to remain active and implement a healthy day and night structure.

“Go outside and walk, make your bed, shower, eat,” she explains. “Not hour after hour, but find milestones that you can work toward, even if it’s going for a coffee once a day.”

U-center’s terrace area is an ideal place to enjoy being outside. Image: U-center (Supplied)

If you’re finding that’s not enough, that’s a sign you need to find help. Not internalising is vital, according to Souren. When you start looking for help, you may find yourself overwhelmed.

Navigating the GP referral process, and finding psychological support that works for you with a therapist you can trust and who also accepts your insurance, can be difficult.

U-center can help with that aspect. Multiple evidence-based interventions are combined to ensure you get the therapy that works for you, under one roof and over seven weeks. “Undertaking a lot of different therapies can accelerate your recovery,” says Souren.

In fact, U-center specialises in people who have been struggling for a long time. “The people who come to U-center have often already gone through a therapy process and tried various options,” explains Souren.

So what makes it different? Let’s take a look.  

U-center: unique treatment for lasting change and a U-turn in life

Your mental health can shape your whole life, so it’s crucial to take it seriously. U-center has designed a unique seven-week program to bring you lasting change, not just a quick fix.

And unlike some psychologists who treat a diagnosis, at U-center, they treat you as a person in a completely bespoke and tailor-made model.

The ultimate goal is to help you make a U-turn — a turning point in your life. How? Let’s break it down. 

Tailor-made approach on different levels

There are so many different elements that contribute to mental health. U-center operates under the biopsychosocial model — the idea that problems and disorders are caused by not only psychological factors but also biological and social ones.

Things like your financial situation, family relationships, medication, and coping with stress can all join forces to create issues. 

At U-center, they focus on how they can treat a combination of factors — not just one. Then, the team tailor-makes a treatment plan that is entirely specific to your situation and needs. 

More than 80% of people experiencing clinical depression reported that treatment helped. Image: Freepik

“We look at the person as a whole,” explains Souren. To be admitted to U-center you need a referral from a GP. From there, a team considers your circumstances to find the best treatment for you. 

The experts in co-occurring disorders

Issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and many more often don’t arrive alone. You may have two, three, or even more — and that’s not abnormal.

Issues can often occur together, which is referred to as ‘comorbidity’ in clinical terms. U-center’s tailored approach means that all problems can be treated in parallel.

Multiple treatment formats designed to get results

A mix of individual and group treatment sessions drive to the root of issues using scientific and evidence-based formats. “There’s always two group therapies a day, and they are often transdiagnostic,” explains Souren.

“That means the group therapy content is applicable to everyone: depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, there are tools that everyone can use to help move forward.”

Individual sessions are tailored to the client’s problems using their personalised treatment plan, says Souren. Further sessions focus on lifestyle change and systems therapy, which looks at relationships with family, friends, and work.

A tranquil location

Nestled in nature, U-center has an idyllic location. Image: U-center/Supplied

A fresh start deserves a fresh place. Imagine receiving treatment in the gently rolling hills of Epen, just on the border of Belgium and Germany.

The converted hotel is comfortable and serene, with sprawling views over the valley below. And the onsite restaurant chef carefully curates balanced, fresh meals to fuel your body. 

Various payment options

Reading through this and thinking, “That’s way out of my budget”? Well, perhaps not. If you’re an expat in the Netherlands, your basic health insurance will likely cover the majority of the costs. Other international insurances often reimburse treatment.

There is a personal contribution — but sometimes this cost can be passed on to your employer because the treatment can often prove a cheaper option for an employer than having an employee on sick leave for an extended period. 

Clients that succeed

It’s important to know whether a particular treatment is often successful — and U-center’s past clients have a lot to say. A series of anonymous reviewers gave U-center an average satisfaction score of 8.2 between January 2020 and December 2022. 

Plus, a dedicated English-speaking team for international clients

Who understands the trials, tribulations, and challenges of living in the Netherlands as a foreigner, better than internationals themselves?

U-center’s staff are specialists in treating expats in the Netherlands, providing a safe space for you to take your first steps towards recovery through a seven-week program in a safe and welcoming environment — entirely in English. 

“We believe that when following an intensive seven-week residential programme, attention should be paid to quality and hospitality,” said a U-center spokesperson. A home away from home for expats, perfectly designed to make a U-turn.

We teamed up with U-center to bring you this article. Are you struggling with your mental health? Sometimes you need expert help to overcome issues. Contact U-center to find out if treatment is suitable for you. 

Feature Image:Unsplash
Samantha Dixon 🇦🇺
Samantha Dixon 🇦🇺https://gallivantations.com
Sam has over six years experience writing about life in the Netherlands and leads the content team at DutchReview. She originally came to the Netherlands to study in 2016 and now holds a BA (Hons.) in Arts, a BA (Hons) in Journalism, and (almost) a Masters in Teaching. She loves to write about settling into life in the Netherlands, her city of Utrecht, learning Dutch, and jobs in the Netherlands — and she still can’t jump on the back of a moving bike (she's learning!).

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