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The Connection Between Homesickness and Depression

What is Homesickness

Homesickness involves feelings of distress (emotional and/or physical) and impaired functioning that can happen when a person is separated from home and their loved ones. It is about our instinctive needs for protection and security which is partially derived from familiarity. Surprisingly, the lack of familiarity can be jarring even to emotionally strong people. A temporary or permanent move may trigger feelings of homesickness. In addition, going away to summer camp, college, lengthy vacations, or even long hospitalizations can cause feelings of homesickness.

Literary references to homesickness go as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. In the 17th century, it used to be seen as a dangerous disease that people could die from, says Dr. Susan Matt, author of “Homesickness: An American History.” In modern times, homesickness came to be thought of as childish or immature. However, recently the counter trend has made people less fearful of talking about it. Due to our society becoming so much more mobile, far more people are experiencing it.

Some people are more prone to homesickness than others, depending on personality types and coping styles. Children, adolescents, and young adults may have different symptoms than adults as homesickness is related to significant changes in daily life rhythms. These are usually changes the child has no control over and thus generate feelings of powerlessness. Generally, each individual’s experience of homesickness may be different depending on levels of support, the degree of stress already in a person’s life and whether or not the move/new location is permanent or temporary. The focus of this blog will be on children, adolescents, and young adults and issues related to their experiences with homesickness and how depression fits into this experience.

How Homesickness and Depression Are Related

The presence of homesickness does not always indicate depression. The severity of the person’s symptoms and the duration of the symptoms are key to determining if the condition of homesickness has turned into clinical depression. Symptoms can mimic mental health disorders like depression but it’s important not to make a diagnosis of depression without data gathered over time.

In many cases of homesickness, when a person begins to apply coping strategies, the feelings will begin to dissipate and soon they are creating new memories and support systems. So even though there may be feelings of sadness and loneliness at first, this does not mean the person is depressed. It’s hard to feel protected and secure with people you don’t know well, a new living environment and new school or work conditions. It gets complicated for children when so many things are new all at once and when they don’t have decision making power over their circumstances. It can be difficult for college students as well, because it can be the first time they have been away from home and family. Despite all these factors, homesickness can sometimes become so severe over time, that it does turn into clinical depression.

What are the Symptoms of Homesickness in Children

The following are symptoms in children and adolescents:

  • Acting out
  • Temper Tantrums
  • Problems in school
  • Sadness/feelings of loss
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Physical aches and pains (especially headaches and stomachaches)
  • Changes in appetite
  • Low energy
  • Anxiety
  • Preoccupation with thoughts of home
  • Sudden crying episodes       

What are the Symptoms of Homesickness in College Students

Symptoms in college students may be somewhat different than in children. The following represent some symptoms to be aware of:

  • Missing friends, parents, home, even before they leave for college
  • Feeling unsettled
  • Being less satisfied with social or academic life
  • Feelings of longing for familiarity
  • Ruminating on their decision to leave home
  • Anxiety                               

Coping with Homesickness

  • Let yourself be homesick for 24 hours

Missing home is normal so let yourself have a good cry. Put a time limit on indulging your feelings (like 24 hours) so you can move into action based strategies. After all, this is an opportunity to build resilience and new coping skills.

  • Keep Busy

Isolating and retreating to your room will most likely make homesickness worse. Study at the library, join extracurricular activities, get a part time job, or a walk in the park are all things to do to keep you connected to your present experience. As you stay busy, you will be making new memories.

  • Bring Home Comforts to the New Environment

A stuffed toy, teddy bear, favorite blanket, pictures of happy memories will serve to provide some comfort and familiarity in the new place/situation. It’s ok to have these objects of support that keep us connected to our support systems back home.

  • Keep in Touch with Home but Not too Much

Family and friends back home can provide important emotional support. However, it’s imperative to balance this with time making new connections and new memories. Otherwise, you are stuck in the past and miss the opportunity to build your resilience. Parents need to schedule a once per week call with their children away at boarding school or their college student. Scheduling contact vs texting and calling daily creates space for the young person to begin to develop resilience and coping skills on their own.

  • Pick Real Life Over Social Media

Constantly checking social media posts from home can take you out of the present moment and bog you down with nostalgia from the past. This does more harm than good, cutting you off from living your current life.

  • Explore Your New Surroundings/Create a new Adventure

Get out and explore what your new city/community/school has to offer. Pick a place you enjoy and routinely visit and as you do it becomes your new familiar place. Suddenly, you begin to feel like you know your surroundings and you get comfortable with pursuing new opportunities.  

  • Exercise

Laying on the sofa eating ice cream may feel good in the moment but will make you feel worse in the big picture. Movement, fresh air, sunshine and nature will all keep you feeling more positive about life. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just a walk in the sunshine will do.

  • Plan One Nice thing for Yourself Daily

Making a concerted effort to hold a positive attitude, helps to make new friends and combats homesickness in a major way. Self-care activities can help to keep your mood upbeat.

  • Ask for Help

Don’t suffer in silence. There are many resources to alleviate homesickness and if the feelings persist and get stronger, it’s time to talk to someone. When homesickness becomes overwhelming and feelings of sadness are experienced every day, homesickness has become a serious problem that needs intervention. This is when intervention can prevent depression from setting in. HopeNation has counselors available to talk to you in your own home, dorm room, or office as we are telehealth. We can meet you where you are and help you move into a stronger, more confident place to adjust to life’s new challenges. 

Reviewed By:
Steven Shampain LPC-MHSP
Written By:
Bethany Keith, MSW, LCSW
Casey Merrill

Casey Merrill

LPC-MHSP

Christal Pennic

Christal Pennic

LPC-MHSP