I read quite a lot of the research which comes out about British expats in France. A lot of it reaches positive conclusions but these are quite often contradicted by what we read in other studies. For example – as quoted recently in these pages – psychologist Christine Haworth-Staines found that expats here were in general happier than their stay-at-home compatriots. I’ve also read recently that, according to a survey across the country, the vast majority of them, even when admitting to problems, reject the idea of a return to the UK.
On the other hand I’ve come across a number of testimonies, often from psychotherapists, counsellors and similar professionals, which offer a darker picture. According to Chris Mayne, a spokesperson for the English-language helpline SOS Help (open every day from 3pm to 11pm on: 01 46 21 46 46), the overwhelming majority of the calls they receive relate to issues of social isolation and loneliness. When I heard this I recalled the case of David Bromley, a 70-year old Englishman found dead in his cottage in a Normandy village where his body lay for seven months until a neighbour noticed junk mail spilling out of his mailbox. Said one villager, “He didn’t seem to have much French, he rarely spoke to anyone and hardly ever went out. It must have been a grim life.”
Dr Stephanie Kleindorfer, a Paris-based psychotherapist, specialising in dealing with the problems of expats, points out that “couples relocating face a huge amount of cultural shock, even in small things and that means extra stress on the marriage. People in that situation shouldn’t put off seeking help.” Younger people, including singles, are more likely to be more socially and culturally adaptable while the most vulnerable are later middle-aged couples who have chosen to retire here and so, in a sense, face a double expatriation. As someone has said, “Old age is another country and one we’ve never been to before.”
Dr Nicolas Priestley, a British psychotherapist working in France, says that incomers from the UK seem especially prone to mental problems, notably clinical depression: “Certain factors increase the risk in that group. Separation from family and familiar social networks can be destabilising. They also find that their previously acquired social and cultural experience is often irrelevant and their established identity in Britain is of reduced significance. Of course, France itself is not the problem but there’s no denying that mental health problems might surface because of the stresses entailed in living as an expat.” Any comment from readers on all this would be welcome. And a useful website – www.counsellinginfrance.com – where common problems are discussed and there’s a listing of psychotherapists and counsellors across France.