Health: Home is where the heart is; travel makes you sick

Homesickness is not a trivial complaint. It can lead to serious psychological and physical illness.
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WHEN BEN, now 33, was packed off to boarding school at the age of 12, he suffered from chronic homesickness. "I can still remember my first night there. I felt physically sick with nerves because it all seemed so strange." Like many boys, he learnt to conceal his feelings. "My parents would send me letters every day and I couldn't even open them. It would upset me too much. I wanted to block out any memory of them. Then I'd get really bad stomach cramps. The matron told me it was a physical reaction to missing my parents."

For many people, homesickness results in severe anxiety, depression and other psychological problems, which can in turn trigger stress-related physical illnesses.

This week, as thousands of students prepare to leave home, perhaps for the first time, research shows that some people may be predisposed to homesickness and that common personality traits and disorders are found among sufferers.

Far from being a trifling and transient feature of childhood, homesickness in its more serious forms is now being recognised as a clinical condition that can be lifelong, requiring treatment with either counselling or antidepressants. For some people, the psychological and physical effects of moving away from home can be as great as if a relative or close friend had died.

As a result of greater mobility at work, and more young people going into education away from home, increasing numbers of people are suffering from homesickness - now defined as a depression-like reaction to leaving a familiar environment.

Just how many people suffer homesickness is not clear; surveys of first- year university students have estimated the prevalence as between 19 and 95 per cent. Figures for more serious forms of homesickness, which are usually more precise because therapy may be needed, show that 7 to 10 per cent of the population are affected.

"Extroverts and people with an openness to novel experiences generally will be less susceptible to homesickness. Socially inadequate people will experience more difficulties during adaptation to new environments because of their reluctance to seek social support," says Dr Elizabeth Eurelings- Bontekoe, who has investigated personality disorders in the homesick.

She says that traits associated with homesickness include a high level of dependency with strong emotional ties to parents, and a low level of dominance. Sufferers also typically have low self-esteem, are under-assertive and may be neurotic. They tend to suffer from anxiety, and may be obsessive and compulsive.

She and colleagues at the University of Leiden, who report in the British Journal of Psychology the results of their interviews with a number of homesick women, say that other factors may also play a part.

They found, for instance, that nearly 40 per cent of the women had experienced the sudden death of a parent or sibling during their childhood, and that more than half had been to boarding school: "These women felt they had been sent away because they were not loved or wanted by their parents," says Dr Eurelings-Bontekoe.

Dr Tony Munton, psychologist at the Thomas Coran Research Centre in London, estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of university students get homesick with varying intensity during their first year. "People can react to a move as if a close friend or relative had died, and given that moving involves a separation from familiar surroundings, it is perhaps not surprising that for some people the effects can be similar to bereavement or grieving. It can lead to quite serious emotional and physical disorders developing.

"An important factor, of course, is the familiarity of home. We feel most comfortable with objects, places and people with whom we are most familiar, and that's something that hasn't escaped the attention of the international hotel chains. A room in a Holiday Inn looks very much the same whether it's in London, Las Vegas or Beirut."

It is not only young people making the break for the first time who suffer homesickness. Some people suffer throughout their lives with chronic and acute problems.

Dr Munton, who has carried out research among company movers, says that increasing numbers of corporate families move regularly as they climb the business ladder.

"Someone in banking, for example, may expect to make 15 or so moves, and that can be stressful. We found that it is too simple to divide those who were homesick and those who were not, into introverts and extroverts. Extroverts may find it easier to meet new people when they move, but then introverts are self-contained and don't rely on social networks," he says.

His coping strategies for homesickness centre on research that shows that preparing for the move can avoid later problems.

"Make regular trips to the new place before you go, get information about local organisations and groups, get hold of street maps, take familiar objects with you, like that old battered kettle, and talk about the move in the family. Keep busy, and not too many visits home, at least to begin with, are helpful. Don't put off thinking about the move until the last minute, because people who do that suffer the most," he says.

Other research has shown that the Internet is being increasingly used as a way of tackling homesickness. More than 4,000 Web pages offer advice on homesickness; government agencies in Malaysia and the Lebanon have Web pages specially designed to help students abroad. Homesick Canadian ex-pats can sign on to their page and hear the national anthem played as the words scroll by.

For most people, coping strategies like these will help to ease the transition, but one in ten will need some kind of treatment with antidepressants or counselling, or both.

For others, one of the obstacles to treating homesickness is that although the symptoms are universal, the causes are diverse and complex, and may mask other problems.

Dr Eurelings-Bontekoe found, for instance, that one of the women she interviewed was homesick every time she went on holiday. But this was not a result of childhood experiences or sinister personality problems; it was simply that she disliked having to spend every minute of the day with her husband, and preferred to be at home.