Working on the Homesick Blues
Why should researchers study homesickness? Is it really a topic worth scientific investigation? After all, homesickness is part of normal life, something that probably nearly everyone experiences at least a little bit, when leaving home for longer periods. And homesickness is not a separate “official” category of mental disorder in the DSM system (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), like the related phenomena of Separation Anxiety or Adjustment Disorder. These may seem persuasive points against studying homesickness, but nevertheless I can think of a variety of reasons why one should study it, and why I do!
Importantly, homesickness is associated with detrimental consequences for mental and physical health, for example, it is associated with anxiety and depression, as well as with appetite changes, gastrointestinal difficulties, and immune deficiencies (cf., Stroebe, Schut, & Nauta, 2015a). For me, this is a major impetus to scientific investigation. Moreover, severely homesick students drop out of college more frequently than their non-affected counterparts, academic concentration is poorer, and some researchers have found that even grades are lower.
“homesickness is associated with detrimental consequences for mental and physical health”
Despite these negative effects of homesickness on health and well-being, my colleague Maaike Nauta of the University of Groningen, my colleague Henk Schut of Utrecht University, and I discovered that there was no recent, comprehensive overview. Thus, we were keen to review the studies of homesickness ourselves. As reported in our review published in the Review of General Psychology (Stroebe et al., 2015a), while establishing the associations between homesickness and wellbeing illustrated above, we discovered a “flaw”, as we saw it, in many of the empirical approaches: Phenomena associated with separation from home – the essence of homesickness – were frequently mingled with phenomena associated with adjustment to a new place (to give credit: there were a few notable exceptions, c.f., Thurber, 1999; Vingerhoets, 2005).
Since this meant that we could not get a good handle on the correlates, risk and protective factors, and consequences of homesickness per se, we developed a theoretical model to guide future research. This model will shortly appear in Clinical Psychological Science (Stroebe, Schut, & Nauta, 2015b) and is based on a narrow definition of homesickness as a “mini-grief”: “a negative emotional state primarily due to separation from home and attachment persons, characterized by longing for and preoccupation with home, and often with difficulties adjusting to the new place”.
“homesickness as a “mini-grief””
Of course my fascination with homesickness neither started nor stops with reviewing the literature and proposing a new model. Homesickness remains a puzzling phenomenon, and puzzles are food for academic thought: For instance (this example is from firsthand experience), why should one student who relocates from her home a few kilometers down the road to a university campus suffer so much that she has to return home, while another student, from a distant country, with no chance to visit home within the academic year, would slip happily into college life, making friends and performing outstandingly-well academically? There is no simple answer, despite what we now know about risk (e.g., insecure attachment) and protective (e.g., physical activity and distractive coping) factors.
I can think of another motivation for studying homesickness. It’s sometimes asserted that psychologists work on topics reflecting their own problems and yes, maybe that was a driving force: One of my earliest memories at around the age of 3 (cf. Ineke Wessel’s blog post!), was of being desperately homesick when taken camping by our housekeeper (She had to bring me home, ashen-white and skinnier, a few days later). Admittedly, my Mother’s memories and reports are surely mixed with my own (Ineke would make sure we realize that). Nevertheless, I have a strong visual image of the dreadful campsite (where Mother was not!), and a clear memory that I was the one to demand to go camping, totally ignorant of the fact that I’d be miserably homesick.
“homesickness is something students can relate to”
Perhaps it is also of relevance, to students reading this blog, that, for me, a reason to study homesickness was that the topic lent itself to working with students. My main research is on the more severe life-event of bereavement, but studying grief reactions in the scope of Bachelor or Master research projects is difficult (though not impossible). In contrast, homesickness is something students can relate to, can study within a few months (as getting research participants is easier). Furthermore, students can apply theories and models of grief and grieving to the study of homesickness (e.g., Bowlby’s, 1980, attachment theory; Lazarus & Folkman’s, 1984, cognitive stress theory). I am a firm believer in theoretically-based research approaches.
I mentioned above that homesickness is not considered a mental disorder in DSM. Should it be or should it not be? This too justifies studying the phenomenon: We don’t know until a body of research has been acquired. For example, what are the specific, distinct, maybe unique underlying mechanisms, correlates and consequences of homesickness, including those of clinical relevance? There is more empirical work for us to do.
Which brings me to a final reason to study homesickness: The topic, not unlike many others of course, calls for different forms of expertise if we are to study it properly, and these are provided by team work. Research to me is also about trying to improve the quality of research and increase scientific knowledge together.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition.
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss. Vol. 3 Loss: Sadness and Depression. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Lazarus, R.S., and Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York, NY: Springer.
Stroebe, M., Schut, H., and Nauta, M.H. (2015a). Homesickness: A systematic review of the scientific literature. Review of General Psychology 19(2): 157-171.
Stroebe, M., Schut, H., Nauta, M.H. (2015b). Is homesickness a mini-grief? Development of a dual process model. Clinical Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/2167702615585302.
Thurber, C.A. (1999). The phenomenology of homesickness in boys. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 27(2): 125-139.
Vingerhoets, A. (2005). The homesickness concept: Questions and doubts. In M. van Tilburg & A. Vingerhoets (Eds.), Psychological Aspects of Geographical Moves: Homesickness and Acculturation Stress. Tilburg, the Netherlands: Tilburg University Press.
Note: Image by Emile Krijgsman, licenced by CC BY 2.0.