The World Health Organisation met early in May to discuss the status of Covid-19: should it still be classified as a global emergency? Their conclusion was that, although the pandemic is far from over, we are no longer experiencing Covid-19 as an emergency, and they have essentially downgraded its status.
New Research Paper on Covid-19 and Expat Mental Health Published
Yet the WHO still has some concerns, and Covid-19 is still with us. The UK press has been full of alarms about Arcturus, the new variant, and some of Expat Focus’ own correspondents recently attended a conference in the Midlands from which around a tenth of participants (out of around 800 people) returned with Covid-19. But the impact of the pandemic goes beyond the virus and its physical effects, and researchers are now starting to study its effects on mental health. A recent research paper, Loneliness and trust issues reshape mental stress of expatriates during early COVID-19: a structural equation modelling approach, was published by BMC Psychology in April 2023, and we’re going to take a look at its findings.
The report, written by Md Arif Billah, Sharmin Akhtar and Md. Nuruzzaman Khan, seeks to establish Covid-related stress in expats resulting from loneliness, lack of interpersonal trust and lack of institutional trust in the initial stages of the pandemic. The authors looked at data from 21,439 expats, from 39 countries, in 47 languages. Most of these respondents (73%) were married women educated to degree level, with an average age of 40. Around half of these respondents were employed. 63% of respondents reported that the pandemic was ‘life changing.’ 37% had put themselves in full isolation and 58% into modified isolation, with the remainder engaging in social distancing to some extent.
Covid-19 Impacted Stress, Trust and Relationships
The study revealed a moderate correlation of perceived stress with age, perceived loneliness, interpersonal trust and institutional trust; lack of trust led to loneliness, and this in turn led to stress. By ‘lack of trust’, the authors mean unsettled or ill-established social relationships, which can be a feature of expat life, particularly in the early days of your move. If you’re in the first six months of a new life abroad, without sufficient time to forge strong links with your colleagues or your local community, and are then confined to your house and geographically separated from your support network back home due to border closures and lockdown measures, the impact on your mental health can be severe.
“There is evidence that expatriates felt lonely when they faced acculturation and adaptation problems in the host country. Besides, COVID-19 enhanced individuals’ levels of isolation, integrated with socio-cultural isolation, and impacted their psychosocial wellbeing, perceived loneliness, and stress. One study found that social disconnectedness and increased stressors during the pandemic reduced trust in government institutions.”
Expat Focus has also spoken to a psychologist contact in London, who says that the incidence of divorce among her clients, who are wealthy and mainly Asian, has increased substantially after the pandemic. Obliged to live together without escape, marital tensions escalate. The study itself shows that among older people who have good connections with their neighbours, loneliness and stress are inhibited, but this is often not the case with expats, who may also live at a geographical distance from their compatriots.
Young Expats Experienced Stress Around Education Provision
With younger expats, such as students studying abroad at an educational institution, stress was caused by a lack of trust in their educational provider. In the chaos of the pandemic, higher education was placed under severe strain, and many students found that their classes fell by the wayside. Studying from home, via the internet, is often no substitute for in-person learning, and studies have demonstrated that it is not a permanent solution. Moreover,
“…decreased community engagement is associated with depressive symptoms, while interpersonal trust is associated with increased social engagement.”
Students felt disconnected and adrift from their educational providers (and, as an aside, may not yet have the life skills to cope with being caught up in a global emergency in an unfamiliar country – a predicament which has proved challenging even to seasoned expats!). The authors of the recent report conclude that:
“Making strong linkage[s] among migrants as well as between migrants and [the] local community is important to ensure [the] proper mental wellbeing of expatriates.”
Community Building Vital Among Expats
The lessons to be learned from the pandemic are multiple, and there is also the argument that the experience of lockdown was tough on everyone, regardless of location. But with regard specifically to expats, the importance of community building cannot be overestimated, not just within your own expat and work group, but with the wider community also. Expats will be aware that there’s a danger of cultural and social insularity if you just hang out with other expats – one disadvantage is that you so often end up comparing your new country with your home and that can lead to negative comparisons.
In previous wellness articles, we have suggested ways of joining in with the community, such as volunteering and attending local events, as well as seeking out and getting to know your neighbours. It does not always work, and there may be language and cultural roadblocks to overcome, but it’s worth making the effort. Part of isolation is a lack of the feeling that you’re part of a community, that we’re ‘all in it together.’ If we do go through another pandemic, with corresponding lockdowns, the sense that you are part of a community, even if you cannot actually go and visit your neighbours, can sometimes be sustaining. It’s an existential solution to what is often an existential problem.
If you’re an introvert, your boundaries will be different. Introverts are energetically charged by ‘alone time.’ Lockdown was not, broadly speaking, as difficult for them, but it is still possible to be an introvert and suffer from loneliness. Part of the solution to that is knowing that there’s a community around you, and that you can choose when to participate in it – this was one of the challenges of lockdown.