Feeling low and anxious? Suffering from disrupted sleep? Could Brexit be damaging your mental health? A Britain Thinks poll of more than 2,000 people, the results of which were released this week, found that 83% of those surveyed were sick of hearing about Brexit, while 64% thought it was damaging their mental health. The poll found that the dominant words people use in relation to Brexit have changed: in 2017, it was “confusing” or “uncertain”; now, it is “broken” and “chaos”. No politician is singled out, because we’re blaming all of them equally; except for David Cameron, who has a special, individuated space in the nation’s psyche as the man who unleashed this hell. Wishing for the politics of a lost age is the last thing people do when they have given up: it isn’t an acceptance of the status quo, but rather frustration at not being able to put these hideous worms back in their can.
Brexit hangs over so many decisions: should I move house? Move cities? Get an Irish passport on some tenuous connection? Then there is the spectacle of a failing parliament; if they can bring us all this close to chaos, for reasons so petty – pride, rhetoric, self-interest – what else are MPs capable of? Would they let a nation’s vegetables rot in lorries to score a political point? What about a nation’s insulin? We seem to be drowning in a lake of dithering incompetence.
Rosie Carter is a researcher for Hope not Hate. The group campaigns against racism, but has also been “measuring optimism and pessimism in the UK, using RMP data [a new polling method that is thought to be more accurate], since 2011”. The current political mess, she says, has “completely changed the mood of the country”.
“What we found was that, post-2016, the areas that had previously been pessimistic – Grimsby, Hartlepool, Boston and Skegness [which voted for leave] – were more optimistic after the referendum result, whereas areas that had previously been optimistic – Bath, Edinburgh, most London boroughs [which voted to remain] – became much more pessimistic. So, Hornsey and Wood Green was 24% more pessimistic; Bristol West, 22%.” (Those two constituencies also had the highest number of signatures on the revoke article 50 petition.)
“By 2018,” Carter continues, “71% of remainers were pessimistic.” Again, that makes sense: there is no data from anyone, using any method, that shows remainers coming round to the situation. But what changed when they polled again in January was that leavers were no longer happy either. “We are now overwhelmingly a country of pessimists. It’s gone from this inverted map to people overall being pessimists, regardless of how they voted. All our data shows increasing mistrust in politicians. I do focus groups all over the country, and all I hear is anger and frustration. People don’t feel consulted. They don’t feel like they’re getting what they want.”
Mental health professionals don’t describe what they see on an individual level as pessimism – rather, a multilayered kaleidoscope running the gamut of emotions from insecurity to rage. Julia Bueno, a therapist and the author of The Brink of Being, says: “This is operating on two distinct levels.” There’s a concrete change, she says, for those whose livelihoods are diminished or rendered precarious by Brexit. She talks about one client who works in the NHS and says reduced migration has led to staff shortages, and another who works in an advertising agency and says no one can make any decisions until Brexit is resolved. But there’s also a deeper emotional level, which perhaps none of us is immune to. “At the abstract level,” Bueno says, “there’s a swell of real distress. Anxiety, disappointment and rage – but it’s an impotent rage that can’t go anywhere.
“Ultimately, it’s a test of bearing the unbearable, which is an existential threat to a lot of people who end up in therapy in the first place. We can’t fight death, but there’s a complete frustration that this seems unfightable, too, that democratic agency doesn’t exist. Politicians are our ultimate caregivers. We’ve entrusted them to look after us.”
Younger people might be more deeply affected – and for reasons more profound than the idea they were hoping to work in Paris. “My experience of millennials is that they’re far more politically engaged than we were,” says Bueno, who is 47. “So they’re more invested in their political identities, which makes this more painful.”
The disconnect between what some people feel – more than six million signed the revoke petition – and what it is assumed that everyone feels (they want to leave, now; they voted once and don’t want to say it again), leaves huge swathes of the population with their political views denied, rendered inauthentic. What if you’re in favour of free movement? What if you think sovereignty is a stupid thing to get worked up about? What if you never thought international collaboration on lawmaking was a bad thing? What if you didn’t see it as losing control? You’re not just outside political parties and discourse, you are a non-person, stateless in Brexitland. And if your civic identity is quite central to your sense of self, that’s hard to take.
Sue Cowan-Jenssen, a therapist specialising in trauma, points out that the impact of Brexit is not just something therapists deal with inside their clinics – but something that takes a toll on the medics and therapists themselves. “We’re all concerned and worried – astonished at the level of dysfunction and madness.”
The impact may have been at its worst for individuals in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, says Cowan-Jenssen, who describes it as “a real punch to the solar plexus”. “At least one of my clients decided to leave, as in, not live in England any more.” In the sludge since, she says, “I think a lot of feelings are held in suspension because really people don’t believe that it could be as bad as it sounds.” Having said that, “my practice is packed. And everybody I know, their practice is packed. I’m finding it incredibly hard to find people to refer on to because nobody has any space.” To ascribe that entirely to Brexit would be a bold move (which Cowan-Jenssen doesn’t make), but we can file it under the category of “not helping”.
While living through chaotic times is no fun for anyone, some are more vulnerable. Dr Ellie Cannon, a GP who runs an anxiety clinic in north London, says: “I think that people who already suffer and are being treated for generalised anxiety disorder or depression find that politics or societal problems worsen their mood and worsen their symptoms. I’ve certainly seen that in clinic. Then there are specific pressures, people concerned about what Brexit will do to their job, or to their medication supply.” (This is a particular feature of severe depressive disorders: stories about medical stockpiling are causing acute anxiety in people who have spent years establishing the right balance of meds. And the anxieties are not unreasonable, since Cannon has “definitely had medication supply issues”, though she is chary of ascribing that directly to Brexit, despite the fact that she has also had an increase in prescription requests.) Not all GPs have seen Brexit emerge as a notable cause of serious anxiety, however. A GP with a rural surgery in the west of England, says: “I would be lying if I said I was seeing patients with Brexit anxiety. That’s mostly me and my colleagues – patients don’t mention it, really.”
Concrete Brexit fears are concentrated, for the time being, in areas and jobs that have already suffered adverse effects, or among citizens of EU countries who have made the UK their home. Dimitri Scarlato is an advocate for The 3 Million, a campaign group for the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. He describes people who have lived here since the 50s and are shocked and wounded that their status would even be open to question. “For the first time in my life, I’ve started thinking the UK is maybe not my country,” he says. “I’ve been here for 15 years. I’ve met so many wonderful people. But I have been so shocked by this. And the process is exhausting.”
Ah, the process: should EU nationals surrender their ID cards to get a passport? What if they never see them again? Will they be able to travel, or will they be stuck? Elderly emigres are having to dig out paperwork still stamped “alien”, feeling maybe that’s how the Home Office will now see them.
The title of author Elena Remigi’s project and book, In Limbo, describes not only the experiences of immigrants, but all of us. It’s political, yet at the same time, not. There is the jarring disconnect between the observable certainty of Brexit – that it is an absolute shit show – and the perplexing nothingness where progress or solutions would normally be. Some of us may have British passports, but we all have unsettled status.
It is more comfortable territory to discuss the effects of political crisis in their intimate forms – sadness, depression, worry, anxiety, insecurity, families divided by the referendum vote. But there seems to be a flipside, where disillusionment is exploding out into rage rather than imploding, which you could scarcely say is unrelated to mental wellbeing.
You can see this breakdown of civility intensifying the sense of crisis, which is seeping out of Westminster and into daily life. The surge in racism since 2016 – Europeans casually abused in the street, unambiguous hate-crime data – has been noted often. We once took not just pride, but also security, from the sense of Britons as moderate, stoical, polite, tolerant people, protected from extremes by pragmatism and humour. That idea has been completely torpedoed.
Carter points to some more of Hope not Hate’s research: “We surveyed 800 Muslims in Bradford, going door-to-door, and 84% said they thought the decision to leave the EU had been accompanied by a rise in racism. We also had white people pointing at the Asian family down the road, saying: ‘Why haven’t they left yet?’” Of course this intolerance may come as much more of a surprise to white people than people of colour. But something about the acceptance of the far-right by the mainstream right – Jacob Rees-Mogg approvingly quoting Germany’s xenophobic AfD party; Theresa May accepting donations from the alt-right’s George Farmer – suggests some dam of decency has been breached. I was on a 36 bus (Paddington to New Cross) last weekend, and the guy in front of me had a pyramid of racial supremacy (it ended in a white person; of course it did) open on his phone. I’ve never been so viscerally shocked in a public place; I had my hands over my kid’s eyes. A friend was sitting next to someone on the tube reading a pamphlet about how “whites resonate at a higher rate” and are “therefore able to attain higher states of consciousness”.
As I write, there is a story breaking about British troops in Afghanistan using an image of Jeremy Corbyn as a target at a shooting range; in February, a range on the Wirral justified using pictures of Shamima Begum, who was stateless and had just lost her third baby, as a target. The language of treachery, betrayal and enmity is constantly on the front pages of newspapers, in the mouths of men in hi-viz jackets. Can you measure violence in the air? Actual violence is a poor proxy for it, since it cannot tell the full story of what this social schism feels like.
Cowan-Jenssen ends on a surprising note: “You have to think about Theresa May. What psychiatric followup has anybody got on her wellbeing? Crises like this are terrible for the health of leaders, and that deepens the crisis. If you look at Anthony Eden, he was in severely bad health, as was Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs.”
My surprise, obviously, was that I had stopped seeing May as a human being, instead of a set of poor and increasingly wild decisions. But perhaps there is no way to guard your own mental health in turbulent times if you don’t start with the question: how is everybody else doing?
• This article was amended on 4 April 2019 because Dimitri Scarlato is an advocate for The 3 Million, but does not run the campaign group as an earlier version said.
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