A Brexistential crisis?

Joel Vos, Digby Tantam and Emmy van Deurzen on how Brexit has emotionally impacted Europeans in the UK, and how psychologists are helping.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson celebrated his election victory in December 2019 with the words ‘This is a turning point in the life of our nation. We got Brexit done.’ It seems that since then, Brexit has disappeared from public awareness. The media are now focusing on the next turning point in the life of our nation: the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, Brexit does not seem to be completely done. The UK still has to formally leave the EU on 1 January 2021, with or without trade agreement. The EU negotiator Michel Barnier expects that a no-deal has become more likely, as he accuses the UK of not engaging seriously in the negotiations. Many EU citizens in the UK had also hoped to get security by their ‘settled status’ in the UK, but this status not been backed by any long-term Government commitment. 

Consequently, Brexit remains a potential source of uncertainty and stress for Europeans in the UK and for Britons in one of the 27 EU-states, particularly as the deadline of leaving the EU is getting closer. In this article, we review the emotional impact of Brexit, and describe how psychologists can help individuals with Brexit-related mental health problems.    

Emotional impact

Our well-being does not exist in a vacuum. It is influenced by our immediate social situation and the wider politics of our country, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit (Vos, 2020; Vos et al., 2019). Since the referendum in 2016, 19 surveys and research studies have examined the psychological impact of Brexit. These studies report a range of Brexit-related emotional concerns in the general population, such as uncertainty, anxiety, sleep problems, social concerns and a sense of powerlessness (see our systematic review of studies below). These research findings need to be carefully interpreted, as most studies were only based on single questions in population polls. However, it is clear that Brexit has influenced people’s emotional lives, regardless of their voting behaviour or their citizenship status in the UK. 

The most thorough studies have been conducted on the emotional impact on ‘Europeans in the UK’, i.e. nationals of one of the 27 European Union countries who currently live in the United Kingdom. The mental health of this group was more negatively impacted than the general population, according to studies in our review. These studies showed that most Europeans in the UK worried particularly about their status and their legal rights after Brexit, felt vulnerable, unsafe, rejected, discriminated, depressed, anxious, or lacked a sense of belonging. 

Furthermore, it seems that the type of emotional impact has shifted over time. Whereas a study from De Cruz and van Deurzen found in 2018 that the social media posts and comments on social media platforms for Europeans in the UK showed both externalising emotions e.g. ‘anger’ – as well as internalising emotions, e.g. ‘sadness’ – Vos (2020a) found mainly internalising emotions and few externalising. This shift could mean that more Europeans in the UK have transitioned from an initial stage of anger and shock after the Brexit referendum towards resignation and helplessness in 2020. 

Causes of the Brexit Blues

The dominant narrative in the media seems to be ‘all is fine now, they just need to fill in some forms’. However, why do so many Europeans in the UK report a large emotional impact of Brexit? The interview studies showed that they felt particularly uncertain about their future status and rights, they felt unwelcome and rejected, felt a loss of their sense of belonging and experienced discrimination. Several authors have attributed these worries to the on-going uncertainty about the legal status of some Europeans in the UK (O’Brian, 2019). Furthermore, it has been argued that a ‘politics of othering’ has emerged, with a media discourse which blamed EU migrants for socio-economic problems and crime, and which seemed to have given space to more Britons expressing xenophobic views in public (Looney, 2017). For example, up to 70 per cent of all EU citizens have experienced work problems due to discrimination, and the number of racially motivated hate crimes has increased by 442 per cent since 2016 (Rzepnikowska, 2019). This situation makes European citizens feel unwelcome and unsafe in the UK. Lahuerta and Iusmen (2020) give a good overview of the political and psychological challenges that Europeans in the UK face. 

Seen in terms of the Power-Threat-Meaning framework (Johnstone, 2018), we recommend not to ask ‘what is wrong’ emotionally with Europeans in the UK and Brits in the EU. Instead, we should examine how political and socio-economic powers have impacted their lives, how they make personal sense of this, and how they cope with this. Differential threats might explain why some Brits in the EU and EU citizens in the UK have reacted so emotionally and feel so stressed (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Two main sources of stress are often cited by individuals in these before-mentioned studies: worries about their legal status in the UK and xenophobia. This can be stressful for them, as they interpret it as threatening to themselves – for example because they could not get settled status or they have been a victim of xenophobia – whereas others do not, for example because they have a British passport and have not been discriminated against. Furthermore, some individuals will have more psychological and social resources to cope with this stress, such as life experience, friends and people who can help them practically and emotionally. Brexit may also be understood as a situation of long-term chronic stress, as the referendum was held in 2016 and there is still some uncertainty in 2020 before all details about the Brexit trade deals are completed. A review by Macgregor-Bowles and Bowles (2019) similarly shows that world-wide political uncertainties and nationalism can trigger worries and mental health problems. 

Some individuals will have better skills than others in tolerating such long-term uncertainty and stress. Psychological theories about learned helplessness (Maier & Seligman, 1976) tell us that when you have made many failed attempts to change your situation, you may at a certain point give up any attempts – such as demonstrating – and feel powerless and helpless. In political contexts this has sometimes been called ‘activist burnout’ (Chen & Gorski, 2015). Several studies in our review showed a sense of powerlessness in Europeans in the UK. 

Individuals have to find a way to cope with unexpected change and have to overcome feelings of unexpected rejection and betrayal. They may need to make some difficult decisions about their future, and regain a sense of control over their own life within the new political context. This means that individuals have to find a way to cope with unexpected change, and have to overcome feelings of unexpected rejection and betrayal. They may need to make some difficult decisions about their future, and regain a sense of control over their own life within the new political context. People who struggle psychologically with Brexit may not necessarily need to suffer from previous mental health problems, as 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. 

Furthermore, Brexit can also be an existential turning point for certain individuals and lead to a Brexistential crisis. The human condition makes us all insecure to some extent so we spend much of our lives securing ourselves in order to feel safe enough to build our lives and relationships, to work and to make it all go round. But, when that is pulled away, you go into what we call an existential crisis which is that the meaning of life is suddenly ripped apart because the meaning of life is very much determined by the way in which we secure ourselves and how we connect up to the world. Brexit is a severing of all those safe connections for people like EU citizens (Van Deurzen in Byline, 7/5/2019).

Emotional support for European citizens

There are several occasional reports by clinical and counselling psychologists and psychotherapists, that Brexit has entered their consultation room, as Brexit has influenced the lives of their clients. To meet the increased need for help of individuals suffering from Brexit-related mental health problems, the Emotional Support Service for Europeans (ESSE) was set up in 2017 by several psychologists, including Professor Emmy van Deurzen, Dr Neil Lamont and Dr Jo Molle at the Existential Academy in association with the Society of Psychotherapy and Voices for Europe. ESSE does not have any political aims, but offers emotional support on human rights basis. Clients are often apolitical themselves, as they did not have the right to vote in the referendum, and they want to stay out of the Leavers/Remainers discussion. On their website, ESSE describes their aim is ‘to help concerned EU citizens to explore and better understand their emotional responses to this period of great upheaval and uncertainty, and so allowing them to gain greater clarity and make informed decisions on how to better cope and protect their well-being’. 

Since then, ESSE has supported around 100 people with up to six brief counselling sessions online or over the phone each by a qualified practitioner who is offering this emotional support service pro bono. In 2020, 16 individuals participated in an independent audit of ESSE, out of the 21 most recent clients who were asked for their feedback (ESSE, 2020). Almost all said that they came to ESSE because of their negative feelings about Brexit (94 per cent), worries about their status (76 per cent), or discrimination (40 per cent). Two-thirds suffered from moderate to severe depression (72 per cent), and half from moderate to severe anxiety disorder (56 per cent). The clients evaluated the service as positive, supportive, understanding, explaining, and helping to take control and to make plans in their life. People wrote that ESSE has specifically helped them to feel less anxious, be more accepting, decisive, feel better about themselves and feel listened to. Almost everyone found these changes important in their life (94 per cent) and expected that these would have been unlikely without the support from ESSE (62 per cent). When asked what it was in the emotional support service that created these changes, individuals wrote that the practitioner encouraged them to take control of things they can control and to commit to action where possible. They also said that the positive and supportive therapeutic relationship helped, as well as receiving suggestions about how to cope emotionally with their life situation and developing insight into their own emotional life and of their relationships. 

These findings suggest that the emotional impact of Brexit can be understood as a response to uncertainties about their legal rights and social changes. ESSE practitioners offered an open ear and a supportive relationship to the clients, and thus often broke their clients’ sense of isolation and rejection. Instead of doubting themselves, clients learnt that their feelings are normal in the circumstances and that they can learn how to deal with them. Clients explored what they could practically do in response to Brexit, and which behavioural or emotional habits may not be helpful. For some individuals, this meant that they decided to leave the UK permanently, whereas for others this meant that they searched for stronger bonds with their friends and community in the UK, and so they shifted their attention away from political worries to what they feel as immediately meaningful in their life. Whereas they had felt like a victim not only as citizen but in their life in general, they took an active role and developed a more realistic sense of how they can live a meaningful life despite the politico-socio climate. To spread this information, ESSE have offered a session for the general public, and reported on these findings in panel discussions by the European Parliament (Tischler 2019; Brophy 2019). 

Impact on psychologists

ESSE is a good example of how Brexit can impact the work of psychologists, and how it may be beneficial to offer mental health services to Europeans in the UK. It has also been argued that Brexit can have a generic impact on mental health care services, as some European citizens working in UK mental health services may leave the UK. 

Furthermore, Universities UK released several reports in 2019 which showed that four out of five British universities are worried about the impact of Brexit, particularly regarding student recruitment and research funding (Marini, 2018). Half of all universities have already seen a decrease in applications from EU students, and almost 60 per cent reported a loss of staff members to overseas rivals due to Brexit. It is not unreasonable to conclude that Brexit in its current trajectory could also lead to fewer young people being trained as psychologists, a loss of academic jobs, and a lack of funding for psychological research, particularly due to the, what seems very likely, loss of Erasmus funding. Given these prospects, Brexit can also increase the levels of uncertainty, anxiety and overall psychological stress in psychologists and psychology-students. 

Therefore, we recommend that the British Psychological Society develops a strategy for dealing with the emotional and organisational challenges that withdrawal from the EU may bring. Brexit does not merely seem to be a political turning point in the history of the United Kingdom, but also a potential emotional and organisational turning point. 

Joel Vos, Digby Tantam and Emmy van Deurzen are at the New School of Psychotherapy & Counselling. Emmy van Deurzen’s forthcoming book is ‘Rising from Existential Crisis’ (PCCS Books). 

 

TABLE 1. Studies on the psychological impact of Brexit on the general population and specifically on Europeans living in the United Kingdom

General population 

Publication date

Author

Sample size

Impact due to Brexit

December 2018

Populus 

4010

38% anxiety 

December 2018

Katvestos et al. 

 

13% increase in prescriptions of antidepressants compared with other drugs since the Brexit referendum

December 2018

Powdthavee, PLagnol, Frijters & Clark

18000

Overall: increased psychological stress**

Remain voters: increased psychological stress

Leave voters: decreased psychological stress

March 2019

Mental health foundation

1823

12% sleep problems 

19% social conflict 

38% anger 

43% powerlessness 

April 2019

BACP

5731

24% little negative impact on mental health

33% large negative impact on mental health

April 2019

Britain Thinks

2004

64% anxiety 

66% confused 

January 2020

Office for National Statistics

320,000

the average growth in well-being has slowed down after the Brexit referendum, and that in 2019, there was even a decrease in Britain’s average happiness, life satisfaction and overall feeling that life is worthwhile

Europeans living in the United Kingdom

August 2017

KPMG

2000

50% feel less welcome in UK

October 2017

Lulle, Morosany & King

60

Shock and horror; fundamental uncertainties about future; feeling ‘other’; rejection; racism; ‘not-at-home’***

June 2018

De Cruz & van Deurzen

1300

Devastated, angry, depressed, despair, betrayed, ashamed, gutted, sad, heartbroken, despair, gutted, anxious, poorer, incredulous, appalled*

July 2018

Brexpat

284

33% work problems

50% social problems

66% anxiety

August 2018

Guma & Jones

42

Anxiety, fear and panic; impact on sense of belonging; hostility, abuse and violence***

September 2018

Owen

17

Sense of othering (shock, anger, upset, rejection), indifference and partial positivity about Brexit, vulnerability (discrimination, distrust), unchanged versus changed sense of home and belonging, wait-and-see-attitude versus urgency to get status, change of identity***

June 2019

Gordon

7

Depression, sense of belonging, discrimination, lack of control, trauma***

July 2019

Mazilli et aL

35

Shock, betrayal, anger, victimhood, , self-justifying right to be here, guilt, reassert own nationality, considering remigration*** 

January 2020

Lahuerta & Iusmen

142

Increased objective vulnerability; heightened sense of being different; feeling unwelcome; uncertainty and anxiety about status and future rights*****

January 2020

Trabka & Pustulka

101

People with low mobility and strong anchors in the UK (irritation, sadness, sadness, remain status quo, political engagement), people with little mobility and little mobility (anchoring in UK, acquiring citizenship, vulnerability, future-oriented); people with strong mobility and weak anchors (downplaying risk, focusing on own mobility); people with strong mobility and strong anchors (disruption, trauma, uncertainty, in limbo)***   

January 2020

ESSE

14

Some worries about own status; no worries about partner’s status; some worries about child(ren)’s status; feelings regarding Brexit: strongly gutted and betrayed, moderately depressed, despairing, devastated, anger, somewhat discriminated; moderate depression; moderate anxiety*****

January 2020

ESSE

14

Anxious & devastated; unsafe, unwanted & isolated; disappointment & anger; negative about the future; physically ill; considering leaving; disbelief; injustice & discriminated***

February 2020

Vos

3000

Lost, heartbroken, stressed, sad, gutted, sick, angry, ashamed, scared, despair, poor, shock, furious, disenfranchised, horrified*

British citizens living in EU27 countries

September 2017

McGhee, Moreh & Vlachantoni

894

Insecurity about rights; anxiety*

*15 most frequently reported words in social media analysis; ** Measured with the GHQ-12, pre-post referendum, difference of 0.1 of a standard deviation; ***Qualitative study; ****mixed qualitative/quantitative study; *****Answer based on rounded means (PHQ-9 for depression symptoms, GAD-7 for anxiety symptoms)

 

TABLE 2. Methodology of the systematic literature review

Methodology of the systematic literature review

Review aim

Conduct a systematic literature review of all empirical studies on the psychological impact of Brexit, regardless of methodology

Search engines

(1)   Web of Science (151 hits)

(2)   PsychInfo (55 hits)

(3)   PubMed (52 hits)

(4)   scholar.google.com (capped at 5,000 hits)

(5)   google.com (capped at 5,000 hits)

Search terms

Combination of terms from two groups: 

(1)   Brexit, AND

(2)   Psycholog* OR psychotherapy* OR counsel* OR sociology* OR psychiatr* OR mental OR mind OR emotion* OR anxiety OR anxious OR depression OR depressed OR suicid* OR psychosis OR psychotic OR trauma OR anger OR angry OR discrimination OR discriminated OR diagnosis OR antidepressants OR anxiolytic OR SSRI OR Xanax OR Zoloft OR Selexa Or Prozac

Article selection steps

(1)   Search in search engines

(2)   Save references in EndNote and delete duplicates (155 remaining)

(3)   Select references on basis of title and abstract (62 remaining)

(4)   Snow-ball strategy: search for relevant references in selected references (3 extra references were added)

(5)   Select references on basis of full-text manuscripts (19 remaining)

 

References

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Brexpat. (2018). What are expats really thinking about Brexit? www.theexpatsurvey.com

Britain Thinks (2019). In: Walker, P., 2019, Six in 10 Britons say Brexit uncertainty bad for mental health, The Guardian, 2 April 2019.

Brophy, J. (2019) Brexit and Mental Health: Are you Coping?, in The Parliament Magazine, 23 December 2019, https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/articles/opinion/brexit-and-mental-health-are-you-coping

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KPMG. (2019). Navigating Brexit. Home.kpmg/uk/

Looney, S. 2017. Breaking Point? An Examination of the Politics of Othering in Brexit Britain.

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Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (1976). Learned helplessness: theory and evidence. Journal of experimental psychology: general105(1), 3.

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