Recent research suggests that as many as 50% of American expats have experienced mental health difficulties, and with Covid-19 added into the mix, the number might be even higher from 2020 onwards.
Mental health during the pandemic
The study, The Mental Health Status of Expatriate Versus US Domestic Workers, was commissioned by Chestnut Global Partners and released at the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021. It canvassed 1,184 randomly selected expats in the UK, USA, Australia, the Emirates and Hong Kong. The findings show that over a third of expats reviewed – around 38% – have seen their mental health deteriorate since the start of the pandemic. 12% said that their mental health had become significantly worse. Anxiety and depression are particularly prevalent. The stress of losing a job can be considerable, and even if you’ve managed to hold onto one, working from home often isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – especially if you’re isolating on your own in a foreign country with insufficient tech resources (it’s taken all of us a while to get to grips with Zoom).
One of the main reasons for relocating is to experience a foreign country, but that’s not easy if you’re barely allowed out, and also if you are prevented from returning to your home country to see loved ones. Many Australians still cannot come back into their own nation, for example. Over 40% of respondents said that they would have preferred to have sat out the pandemic in their own country, but this will have depended on location to some extent. Expats in Dubai, for instance, have reported that they have been very satisfied by their host government’s response to the pandemic, and we have heard the same from expats in Turkey.
CGP describe the effect on expats and their families as an ‘under-represented’ aspect of the pandemic. The effects on expat communities were mixed, with expats in some regions saying that their community now discussed mental health less often, but others suggesting that their community were talking about it more. Over 30% told the survey that they felt ‘more concerned’ about mental health issues.
Expats unsatisfied with local mental health provision
One of the things that this new survey has highlighted, however, is that expats globally feel a lack of confidence in mental healthcare provision, wherever they are. 22% professed themselves to be “sceptical” about local mental health provision, 46% said that they were “uncertain”, and 11% said that they felt “unsatisfied” with professional mental healthcare in their locality. This is obviously cause for concern. Throughout the pandemic, British social media highlighted for us the difficulties that people were experiencing in obtaining any form of state mental healthcare at all, with long waiting lists and an understandable concentration on Covid-19. Not everyone can afford or access private counselling, and some may have been reluctant to undertake this sort of consultation remotely.
It is worth noting that despite the overall findings, one in five respondents, around 23%, told the survey that their mental health had actually improved. There are a number of possible reasons for this. For example, furlough may have granted some people a degree of downtime and removed the day-today stresses of working in an office environment. In addition, expats tend to be resilient people who are accustomed to facing both changes and challenges.
The impact of Covid-19 on diet and relationships
The survey also revealed that wider changes to health had occurred during the pandemic. 6% of respondents said that they had been eating less healthily, but 73% said that their diets had altered, with the majority suggesting that their diets had improved.
The effect on relationships with people back home varied as well, with around 18% of respondents reporting that their relationships with family and friends had improved, but 24% telling researchers that their relationships had deteriorated. 35% said that their relationships with locals had improved, although some reported more negative effects. Many expats did find local support in their host nation.
Safeguard your mental health
Studies undertaken by private health insurers in 2016 suggested that only 6% of potential expats were concerned about mental health issues. Although this number is likely to be higher now, it is still very low. Nonetheless, mental health is something about which it is important to be informed. Mental illness can affect anyone, particularly given the stresses and strains of expat life, alongside curve balls such as the pandemic. It is worth thinking ahead.
You can take out policies that cover mental health treatment and can discuss with your insurer which policy might suit you the best. Visit the health articles section of Expat Focus for more information on safeguarding your mental health while living abroad.