National / Science & Health

Stressed expats need, but oft sidestep real help: therapist

Booze, drugs, sex used to treat culture shock, or to fit in

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Many expatriates who face problems adjusting to the cultural differences of Japan tend to abuse alcohol and other drugs to deal with the stress of the transition, according to a Polish psychologist and therapist who counsels foreign residents in Japan.

“Many people are not prepared to live in Japan and are surprised that their experience is different from what they had expected,” said Dariusz Skowronski, who until recently was providing psychotherapy and counseling at Tokyo English Life Line. TELL, a nonprofit mental health organization, offers free mental health consultations in Tokyo and Yokohama via phone, mainly in English and Japanese.

The stresses related to adapting to a foreign environment include unfamiliarity with new places and people, and concerns about whether one will be accepted by the host country.

“From my clinical experience, men, compared to women, have more difficulties in adapting to the Japanese environment and its culture, which induces stress,” Skowronski, whose stint at TELL ended this month, told The Japan Times in a recent interview. Women tend to suffer from depressive disorders when faced with culture shock but adapt relatively easily, he said.

Skowronski, who has a master’s degree in psychology, earned a Ph.D. in social and behavioral sciences from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, with a specialization in gender and human sexuality.

According to the therapist, who now lectures at Sophia University and will start teaching at Waseda University and Temple University in Tokyo next month, many men who try to blend in well with co-workers end up participating in “drinking parties” more often than they did in their home countries.

“In many cases, drinking is associated with drugs or interactions with women,” Skowronski said, adding that such behavior often causes marital problems. “Many couples split up after coming to Japan or at least are at high risk.”

Skowronski said foreigners who are restrained by their religions may feel liberated when away from their home country.

“Many expats seek a cure for stress, and (in Japan,) many substitute it with alcohol, drugs or sex because they feel more liberated,” he said. “This is why many of them try new things, especially if they are within reach.”

According to the therapist, who also taught in Australia and Singapore, some expats are not aware of the risks of using drugs such as synthetic cannabis and said that some substances have caused long-term or permanent health consequences.

Synthetic cannabis is a psychoactive drug made from natural herbs sprayed with synthetic chemicals that, when consumed, mimic the effects of cannabis. Sold as “herbal incense” or “herbal smoking blends,” it is known by many other brand names, including K2 and Spice. Initially developed only for laboratory use, synthetic drugs can be easily made in hundreds of different versions. The substances in K2 and Spice may cause seizures, palpitations or more severe side effects, such as psychosis, cardiac problems or mental illness.

In many cases, professional help is needed, Skowronski warned.

“There were several cases where I thought the patient would have received better support if he or she had come a few years earlier,” he said.

“Theoretically, it’s never too late for help, but people risk a lot if they leave problems unresolved.” Depression or suicidal intent are signals that one needs help, he said.

However, Skowronski pointed out that people living outside metropolitan areas, especially in small cities and towns, may have difficulty finding quality help.

On the other hand, even in Tokyo, many expats are not aware they should seek professional help or that such support is available, Skowronski said.

“There are three barriers — the language, culture and the mental state — to overcome. Many people give up seeking help at the start, believing it is not available for foreigners or they won’t receive the treatment that would suit them,” he said.

In fact, help for specific disorders, such as those related to sexual tendencies that could lead to offenses, or for people who require long-term treatment, is hard to come by, but the real issue is people’s lack of awareness of their own problems, he said.

“Providing education and information on mental health is necessary. But most of all, an environment for openly discussing stress-related issues and the risks of developing problems is what we need to enable expats to find help for their concerns.”