Expats count the mental health cost of coming ‘home’

How we need to support the returning Aussie repatriate during COVID

Hearing the Australian Prime Minister say that Australia is in no hurry to open international borders will no doubt be another dagger in the heart of more than 36,000 Australians still trying to get home plus those with family abroad.

Around 400,000 Australians have returned home during the pandemic and while much has been written about the logistical nightmare expats encounter, like months waiting for flights, which are often cancelled and or exorbitantly priced, little is spoken about the cost of mental health on these returning Australians.

This is a cost that does not miraculously disappear once the expat finally touches down on Australian soil.

It is an impact, that once compounded with trying to establish life back in Australia after many years overseas, is having a significant mental impact on many.

For the last year, I have spoken to expats in this position every single week.

The factors that add to the stress of a returning Australian expat

While everyone I speak to is extremely grateful for the opportunity to live back in Australia, many have spoken to me about the factors that have significantly added to the stress and anxiety of coming home.

Lack of empathy – Expats have heard and read the sentiment in Australian media and online from people believing they should have ‘come home when the government told them to’. And basically, stop the whinging. The reality is that it isn’t so simple. Firstly, when the COVID crisis first broke, Australians abroad were told to stay where they are if they were living overseas and felt safe. This advice subsequently changed, and many expats have said they struggled to get clear information about how to respond.  Secondly, many long-term expats have jobs, children in schools and a home. Coming back to Australia is not as simple as throwing a couple of suitcases and the kids in the car.  For those who have established themselves overseas, they have faced leaving jobs with the prospect of no job back home to support their family.

Challenging job market – For an expat coming home on an expedited timeframe, there is the challenge of getting a new job without potentially having time to prepare. The reality for a lot of expats, is that the job and career they had overseas may not have a like-for-like equivalent in Australia.  Australia is a much smaller job market than the US, Europe and Asia where many expats are returning home from. Coupled with a lack of active professional networks, many feel shut out of the market or face lengthy timeframes to manage their career transition.

Family dynamic – Australian expats often have partners and extended family from overseas. Coming home to Australia, not only puts distance between these families but sees the loss of support frameworks which has created additional anxiety.

Lack of community – Many expats who returned during 2020, returned to a life in lockdown. Proper connections with friends and family weren’t initially possible, nor was it possible to make new friends and connections. Returning home, without COVID, is challenging for most expats so the lockdown restrictions created additional loneliness, isolation and anxiety for many I have spoken to.

Feeling of abandonment – Australians leaving family to live overseas have always done so knowing that home is 24 hours away.  This confidence has been taken away from Australians.  You can no longer come home when you need or want to.  This has created extreme anxiety for expats.  A group of stranded Aussies are currently taking legal action against Australia to the UN in Geneva, a move publicly backed by former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. The group argues that the caps on international arrivals breach the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which says that ‘no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his [or her] own country’. While the UN has requested that Australia promptly allow the return of the two citizens that have filed the complaint it could take up to eight months for a ruling on the substantive case, so the pain for many will continue.

In the latest Boomeranging podcast, I speak to Shane Masters who speaks passionately about the need to support returning expats.  I first read about Shane’s story in the AFR, where he spoke of his return to Adelaide from 13 years abroad in August 2020.  It took Shane and his family five months, more than $52,000 in booked flights and a journey via Belgium from France to eventually get home. Like all expats, Shane is happy to be back but is acutely aware of the impact the COVID experience is having on the mental health of those returning.  As an expat, he was a supporter of the expat community creating ‘The Australia Day Games’, a day for Aussies to come together to celebrate and support each other. Returning home, he is recognising the need that support for expats isn’t just for when they are in a foreign country but is also really important when they come home after an experience that has left many feeling abandoned by their own country.