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COVID-19 & Mental Health for Expats Research

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William Cooper

Head of Marketing

Research study: How has COVID-19 affected the mental health of expats?

For mental health awareness week 2021, William Russell surveyed over 1,100 expatriates in five countries to reveal some worrying stats about expat mental health.

The results highlight the unique challenges faced by over 66 million people worldwide living as expatriates. Not only have they had to navigate the global pandemic like the rest of the world, they’ve done so while living, working or studying in a foreign country. That means they’ve been more isolated from traditional support networks such as friends and families.

Our survey data highlights an under-represented effect of the pandemic: the impact upon the mental health of individuals and families living abroad. The data indicates that a sizeable proportion of the expat community has experienced a fall in the quality of mental health in the 18 months following the start of the pandemic in early 2020. The survey data also suggests some of the key factors contributing to this decline.

About the study

Our survey reached out to a wide cross-section of expats, which included foreign workers, students and retirees of all ages. The total number of respondents was 1,184 and they were living in:

  • Australia
  • Hong Kong
  • UAE
  • UK
  • USA

Expat mental health: survey findings

The overall impact of the pandemic on expats

The results of our survey reveal the duality of the expat experience. While the majority of expats said the pandemic had caused the quality of their mental health to worsen, more than one in five (22%) told us their mental health had actually improved.

It seems that – for expats who already felt confident about their life overseas – the pandemic was less likely to faze them. However, for people still adapting to life overseas, the pandemic may have shaken the foundations of their lifestyle and experience.

How has the pandemic affected expat mental health?

When asked about the impact of the pandemic on their mental health, 38% of expats responded that they had noticed a decline.

William Russell - Mental-health-expats-survey-results -impact of the pandemic on expats

Of those respondents, just under half claimed that their mental health was “significantly worse”. 23% of respondents, however, believed their mental health had improved over the course of the pandemic.

Nearly half of expats wanted to return to their home country during COVID-19

When asked to consider the statement, “I would prefer to be in my home country during the COVID-19 pandemic”, 44% of respondents agreed with the statement and 15% strongly agreed. Only 33% of respondents disagreed with the statement.

Professional mental health support for expats

Mental health services have started gaining more attention in recent years. We asked expats about the quality of the professional mental health services available in the country where they live and work. Only 10% of respondents said they felt “confident” about the professional mental health resources available. On the contrary, 22% of respondents said they were “sceptical,” 46% “uncertain” and 11% reported themselves as feeling “unsatisfied.”

Social mental health support for expats

When it came to talking with fellow expatriates and seeking social support, the results were mixed. 25% of respondents told us that expats in their community were discussing mental health less often as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  29% of respondents felt that their expat community had started to discuss mental health more frequently.

Overall, 31% of respondents felt that expats in their region were “more concerned” about mental health in general following the COVID-19 pandemic.

William Russell Expat Mental Health Survey - 10% of expats feel confident about mental health service resources

The impact of COVID on expat families and lifestyle

Diet and eating habits

Our survey also highlights some of the tangible effects of the pandemic on the overall health of expats. For instance, when asked whether their eating habits had changed, almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents told us their diets had been affected, with 35% claiming their dietary habits had changed “significantly”. Only 6% told us their diets had become less healthy during the pandemic.

Interpersonal relationships

When it comes to interpersonal relationships, the data tells a mixed story. On one hand, we identified some growing tensions between expatriates and their friends and families. Almost a quarter (24%) told us their relationships with people in their home countries had worsened.

On the other hand, 18% said their relationships with people in their home country had improved during the pandemic.

William Russell Expat Mental health report- 35% expats felt their local relationships improved during the pandemic

And, when it came to relationships with people in the country where they live and work, almost one in ten (9%) said their relationships with other people had worsened, while 35% felt their relationships with locals had improved.

This data shows that many expatriates were able to find friendly help and local support in their countries of residence, but that the experience was far from universal.

Find out top tips for
good mental health as an expat

The impact of living abroad

While every expat has a unique and individual experience of life overseas, our survey helps highlight several mental health trends which have come to light during the pandemic.

Overall, some of the results paint a somewhat optimistic picture. When asked how they thought living and working abroad had impacted their mental health, 53% said it had a positive effect. However, at the other end of the scale, as many as one in five (21%) said the overall effect has been negative. 4% felt strongly enough to say that living and working abroad had had a “significantly negative” impact on their mental health.

Our survey into expat mental health shows the ongoing importance of providing mental health resources dedicated to supporting expatriates, who may feel the effects of events, such as the pandemic, much more keenly than others.
Inez Cooper
Co-Founder & Managing Director, William Russell

This Mental Health Awareness Week, William Russell urges all of our members to take stock of their own mental health. Our international health insurance plans supports mental as well as physical health, and we urge anyone who feels the quality of their mental health has declined to make use of their cover and seek the support they need.

Your health and happiness, and those of your family, matter greatly to us, So, please, don’t suffer in silence.