Brexit and mental health – how are you coping?

07 October 2019

Data analytics were no doubt behind a Facebook prompt that pointed me to this event, hosted by the European Parliament in the UK. Around 100 attendees were warmly greeted at the EU parliament’s London headquarters on an Autumnal morning, timed to coincide with October’s World Mental Health day and during a week when the first case of 'Brexit-induced psychosis' was publicised.

So, how are we coping with Brexit? Not well, according to the evidence and the high expressed emotion in the room. Anger, despair and fear were dominant themes, with some in tears, including an attendee who identified as a #RemainerNow, apologising profusely for choosing ‘leave’ in 2016’s referendum. A panel discussion featured two MEPs, Jane Brophy (Liberal Democrat) and Seb Dance (Labour), an economist Dr George Kavetsos, and Professor Emmy van Deurzen, a philosopher, psychologist and existential therapist.

George Kavetsos started by outlining his research on wellbeing since the EU referendum. He noted that subjective wellbeing has declined, the effect bigger than that of unemployment or widowhood. He highlighted the permanence of the result, unlike a regular electoral cycle, and the stark binary choice of leave or remain as key influencing factors. Jane Brophy suggested coping using the five ways to wellbeing including lifelong learning and being active, and gave a welcome plug for investment in under-funded mental health services. She also talked of the value of civic engagement, in her own case, entering politics after many years working in the NHS.

Emmy van Deurzen’s contribution was memorable, delivering an impassioned speech, on behalf of the 5 million EU nationals resident in the UK and those UK residents living elsewhere in the EU who were denied a referendum vote. A Dutch national, she has lived and worked in the UK for over four decades, and now provides pro-bono therapy services for traumatised EU citizens living here. And yes, there is a waiting list. Those having treatment are presenting with distress similar in severity to those who’ve experienced torture. She raised wider issues of societal inequality, lack of trust in politicians and the political process, and the paucity of truth in current discourse that make us feel destabilised.

Seb Dance talked of the preponderance of displacement activities, such as blaming others and the ongoing uncertainty that makes us, no matter how we voted, anxious. He also raised the issue of mental exhaustion after three years of toxic and unresolved political negotiations, leaving crucial policies and deliberations by the wayside. 

Dance suggested that talk about Brexit often feels like an extended therapy session and, sure enough, many personal anecdotes about Brexit-related mental health issues and family dysfunction were shared during the post-panel Q and A. In a room full of Remainer voices, I was reminded of genernalising assumptions about others based upon their referendum voting record and the damage this is causing to family and community relations. Widespread use of the terms Remainer and Leaver reinforces this, and depersonalises, reducing empathy with those who have opposing views. This is reminiscent of in and out-group classification with associated outcomes including prejudice towards those perceived to be in the out-group. This event highlighted that, as well as individual psychological impacts, wider societal damage is being perpetuated as communities are split across Leaver and Remainer positions.

Some positives were presented, returning to the five ways to wellbeing, and connecting with others was recommended, e.g. attending events such as this one. Managing the amount of time spent on social media, avoiding bots and trolls, being creative, and communing with nature were also suggested as antidotes to our current woes.

The event could be criticised for neglecting Leaver perspectives, whose ranks are likely to also be experiencing mental distress, through having their expectations thwarted, being vilified by some, and feeling frustrated at the lack of Brexit progress.

The event was followed by a tasty lunch including Eton Mess for pudding, surely a wry choice by the organisers.