Three years after the UK voted to leave the European Union the uncertainty around Brexit is taking a toll on people’s wellbeing, researchers have found. Unanswered questions about the future, difficult decisions to be made, a hostile political climate and a constant flow of negative news are putting to the test people’s ability to stay in balance.
Some groups are especially impacted. A recent study by the Robert Gordon University and Feniks, a charity in Edinburgh working for the wellbeing of Central Eastern Europeans, has revealed high levels of anxiety and stress among EU nationals in Scotland. Insecurity about their legal status and the feeling of being unwelcome are widespread, the study says.
Researchers at the University of Southampton came to similar conclusions about the Polish community, which feels more vulnerable because of the surge of hate incidents.
But no one seems immune from the toxic environment generated by Brexit. In a survey for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, one third of British adults said that Brexit has affected their mental health. And anxiety is growing among UK citizens living elsewhere in Europe, who feel abandoned by their country. How to cope with such a situation?
Emmy van Deurzen, psychologist and founder of the London-based Existential Academy, has some tips to share.
A Dutch national, Professor van Deurzen met Theresa May’s “hostile environment” in 2015, when she applied for British citizenship and was rejected twice despite having lived in the UK for 42 years. She fought on and won the case, and the experience motivated her to work with others going through the same struggle. With that resolve, she created the group Voices for Europe for people who felt “muted” in the referendum. Later she opened with other psychotherapists a free counseling service to support EU nationals in Britain.
As an existential therapist, she looks at the context in which a person lives, before looking at the emotions “inside”, she explains.
“The distress experienced by many is not a psychological problem but a social one,” she says having seen more than 50 cases. “The uncertainty caused by Brexit worsens the condition of a person with previous issues. But many of the people we talk to do not have psychological problems. They are just reacting to a social situation in which they have been deprived of their voice, their identity has been suddenly put in question and the foundations of life in the country they have chosen as home are shaking,” she says.
She also noted that while anxiety hit EU nationals first, British nationals “increasingly feel a similar sense of fear”.
So what to do about it? These are some of her suggestions.
Dealing with anxiety
“Anxiety is what all people contacting us have in common,” she says. “They often tell us that they suffer from insomnia or they haven’t had a good night sleep in a long time. In some cases they have become phobic, for example they do not want to leave home for fear of being attacked in the street.”
“A way to deal with anxiety is to be with other people who face the same uncertainty and seek grounding together: we thrive together and linking with others makes us stronger and more aware,” she continues. “Some practical actions, such as establishing a healthy sleeping routine by reviewing sleeping times, keeping bedrooms dark, not drinking too much and not eating before bedtime, can improve daily life.”
Researchers have found that many EU nationals no longer feel valued or welcome in their UK communities. “We have seen people who stopped speaking about their fears with colleagues and friends, worried to lose esteem in their eyes and increasingly finding themselves in a solitary position,” she says.
“The solution is to make people aware of what they stand for, to reclaim one’s home, identity and rights. If children are talked down at school because they are foreigners, talk to the school, offer to speak in class about being from another country, re-assert your position in society. Also, join citizens’ rights groups, participate in rallies and engage in political actions,” she suggests. “We have seen that when people take action, they immediately feel better and the isolation process is quickly reversed.”
Making difficult decisions
Studies have shown that people impacted by Brexit feel forced to make important decisions, such as buying or selling houses, applying for citizenship or leaving the country in which they live. In addition, some of these decisions may look irreversible. Participants in the research on EU nationals in Scotland, for example, were concerned that they might not be allowed to return if they were leaving the UK.
“The safety of home is lost, the foundation of life becomes mobile in this context,” van Deurzen says. “In these situations we encourage people to become active about their choices, seek to expand the options on the table and find the ones that work for them. We have seen people leaving the UK for another EU country, making a courageous assertion of free movement, and people deciding to stay and fight injustice.”
“Taking back control”
“If the central message of the Brexit campaign was ‘taking back control’, Brexit is in fact ‘taking control away’ for five million people who did not have a say in the referendum but have to deal with decisions made by others on their fate,” notes the therapist.
“The problem is when losing control in one aspect of life leads to give away control on everything else. Instead, the loss of control in one area should be balanced by re-establishing control in every other way. This can be achieved by showing how you want life to be and working to that end.”
Brexit is also seen as a betrayal of European values, especially as regards the freedom to move across EU countries. “Many people now question past choices and ask themselves whether they have made a mistake using the opportunity to move across borders,” says van Deurzen.
“This is because when values are rubbished, people who uphold them may think they have been rubbished too. So it is important to state what these values are and reclaim them. This means, for example, continuing to reclaim the capacity to live and work in different EU countries, but also embracing the solidarity and collaboration that underpin the EU project.”
Facing unexpected change
Whatever will happen, Brexit will bring change for which people were not prepared. “In existential therapy, we encourage every person to face up to the light and the dark of life. We see how change happens, address the dilemmas it poses and understand our horizons to plot a path to move forward,” she says.
“We work with change to make it work for us rather than being crushed by it. This involves recognizing the inevitable losses, allowing rather than suppressing grief, re-establishing our true life objectives and also realizing that we can come out of the crisis transformed.”
Brexit means separation, from families fearing to be divided, to divorces from partners with diverging values and departures from countries once representing home. “Forced separations of families are inhumane and should be fought in every way with legal and moral support,” van Deurzen says.
“It is different whether people separate of their own will to re-establish a sense of dignity or if they flee in despair because they have no other option. Ultimately, people have to decide whether they gain or not from a separation, which is the whole story of Brexit and the question the United Kingdom has to answer too”.
Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved