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Brexiety and breakdown: How political crisis damages our mental health

As academics link national and international instability to suicide, the EU referendum’s impact on our wellbeing is starting to become clear.

Warning: this article contains stories about breakdown and suicide.

At 4am on Thursday 23 June, Andrea collapsed onto the floor of her London house, screaming in horror. She called her boyfriend, who came running over immediately. Her memory blanked. All she remembers is taking sleeping tablets to calm herself down, and then staying in bed for two weeks.

“I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to do anything, to be honest I just wanted to die,” she tells me over the phone, over two years on from her breakdown.

Andrea – whose name I’ve changed at her request, to protect her from the “hatred” she feels society has towards people like her – is a 54-year-old EU citizen. Leaving her home country of Germany at the age of 22 with a small sum of money after her mother died, she has lived in the UK for nearly 33 years.

A self-described “total Anglophile”, Andrea was keen to immerse herself in London’s culture and her dream was always to live in the capital. She has an English boyfriend and is so integrated she is no longer comfortable speaking her first language. Her only remaining family is an elderly aunt in Germany.

She developed mental health problems in the mid-Nineties, during her early thirties, and has been diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression and more recently PTSD following a serious illness six years ago (the details of which she prefers not to relive).

That morning in 2016, she experienced “total horror” when she woke up to the rolling news on her TV revealing the final EU referendum results, which she had tried to stay awake to watch.

“If they deport me, I think I’m going to kill myself”

Andrea has long suffered from mental health problems, but these were exacerbated by Brexit. She has experienced this level of despair and distress before, with her illness in 2012, but describes today as worse.

“To be honest, with the illness, there was a chance that it could come back, but I’m six years clear now. I’m out of the main danger zone,” she says. “But this Brexit is going to happen. And they’re going to ask me one day to fill in this form about settled status; it will happen. There’s no way out for me. I feel totally in a corner.”

Andrea’s biggest fear, as someone who has struggled to work and relies on benefits and healthcare, is that she will be made to leave the country. “To be honest, if they deport me, I think I’m going to kill myself,” she tells me.

After leaving Britain’s EU citizens in the lurch for over two years, Theresa May finally gave them a unilateral guarantee of their rights in September, even if there’s no deal.

But citizens like Andrea still feel precarious and The 3 Million pressure group for EU citizens living in the UK is pushing for a separate citizens rights agreement, ringfenced from the other negotiations.

Andrea began worrying about Brexit when David Cameron was re-elected, as she knew he had pledged to hold a referendum. “I’ve been feeling anxious and on edge since then,” she says. “My terror started back in 2015.”

She takes anti-depressants and sleeping tablets and has a lot of psychotherapy and “endless counselling”.

“My doctor thinks I’m a bit delusional about it”

Brexit is not, of course, the cause of her illness – but it has triggered her anxiety. The uncertainty of the situation has taken a toll. She suffers sleepless nights, constantly feels on edge, and is sometimes unable to eat. Every day, she checks online for updates about EU citizens’ rights once or twice a day.

“It’s like a constant preoccupation, almost like an obsession with it,” she tells me. “My doctor in her notes thinks I’m a bit delusional about it, because everyone I speak to says ‘they can’t touch you, you’ve been here for 33 years, you’ll be totally fine’.

“[But] I want to hear more details from the government about it. Would it include people with long-term health problems as well?”

Andrea also fears the attitudes of British people, fretting about what they will think when they hear her German accent. “I feel like I’m hated in this country now,” she says. “I feel relatively safe where I live, but I don’t like travelling outside my own area… I won’t have anything to do with anyone who’s a Leaver. To me, they’re the enemy who want to evict me, who want me to be deported.”

Although still a lover of London, the woman who came to Britain because it was her “dream” feels like she is in a “civil war situation”.

Brexiety

Andrea is not alone. The all-consuming transformation Brexit brings, plus the ensuing uncertainty and toxicity of political discourse, is affecting people’s mental health.

Brexit is even written and spoken about crudely in the language of psychological terms: Britain’s “collective mental breakdown”, a country suffering an “identity crisis”, the people’s act of economic “self-harm”, and Labour’s “schizophrenic” stance, for example.

But something politicians and headline writers appear to have missed is how the drama is playing out in our minds.

“One in five talked about this kind of issue in counselling”

It’s difficult to get hold of stats for how many counselling clients and mental health patients in the UK are expressing concerns about Brexit, but counsellors have noticed the impact in their sessions. The relationship counselling service Relate found a fifth of counsellors had clients bringing it up by December 2016.

“At the time that Brexit happened, we saw a lot more cases where couples would quote Brexit as an issue; they were saying that as individuals as well as couples,” says Gurpreet Singh, who has been a counsellor for eight years, and works with Relate.

“A lot of people from Europe certainly [brought it up],” he reveals. “Our stats show that one in five was talking about this kind of issue.”

Singh also heard it play out in the counselling room as family arguments over which side they voted for, and as a divide between generations.

“If you think about economic uncertainty, where you’re going to live, how you’re going to pay the bills, these are fundamental issues,” he tells me. “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that those kind of issues create conflict no matter where you are or what your nationality looks like… It’s just that Brexit had accelerated such anxieties.”

Those conversations have since dwindled away as people are becoming accustomed to the idea, according to Singh, but with the ongoing uncertainty, he feels “we may see a flare-up later in the year”.

A War of Nerves

It’s not just Brexit. Political conflict has a history of affecting our mental health. In a study revealing the link between suicide and major political and social crises, the historian Dr Julie Gottlieb of the University of Sheffield has recently been researching UK suicides during the Munich Crisis of 1938 (when Britain waited in fear for the outcome of a conference that saw war looming yet again over the world).

“This was an acute moment of crisis, really concentrated into a couple of weeks and indeed a couple of days,” she tells me, having read newspaper reports of coroners’ inquests, diaries, letters and surveys from the time. “I’ve found at least 110 cases where it’s very clear that the trigger for the act of suicide was the crisis.”

“Ultimately, crisis is internalised” 

Known as the “War of Nerves” for its impact on people’s mood, the period of fear ahead of war – marked by gas mask fittings, people facing mobilisation and evacuation, and political turmoil – was mentioned by coroners, family members and witnesses in these suicide cases.

There was the 43-year-old novelist, Marie Winch, who shot herself in her Maidstone home. “The September crisis has upset her and she was also obsessed by a fear that her small daughter was going to be taken away,” said her husband at the time.

A sales clerk in Brixton, William Neatham Rumbell, who declared “well, that means war” and gassed himself in his room at the age of 27, shortly after collecting his gas mask and hearing Hitler’s speech on 26 September 1938.

Then there was a horticulturist from Suffolk called Roger Notcutt, who had a role in assembling the gas masks at an Air Raid Precaution centre, whose disappearance and suicide was pinned on the international crisis.

“Many of these people would have had underlying mental illness and other reasons and other sources of despair, but the trigger [is the crisis],” says Dr Gottlieb. “Crisis is something we think about in political, economic and internationalist terms. But ultimately crisis is internalised. So it’s really about internalisation.”

From studying this phenomenon, Dr Gottlieb finds history can give us a “deeper, more multi-faceted understanding of suicide”. Although she is keen to point out that she is not qualified in psychiatry, she argues that “political and social factors, the crisis factors, are swept to the side too often by professionals who deal with suicide, and I think that is another way possibly of silencing those who are in pain”.

“Aberrations from phases of relative stability are linked to scarily mounting rates of suicide”

At a recent symposium at the University of Sheffield, entitled “Society, Suicide, Crisis”, a group of academics, medical practitioners, charity workers, and mental health activists discussed the relationship between society and suicide. Although participants like Dr Gottlieb – who runs the project – focused on historical examples, they were also encouraged to think about contemporary resonances. Brexit came up a lot.

“It’s undeniable that the financial crisis, migrant crisis, terrorism and Brexit, have each alone and cumulatively taken their toll on the mental health of communities and of individuals,” Dr Gottlieb concludes. “Each of these emergencies – these examples of social disintegration – these aberrations from phases of relative stability are linked to scarily mounting rates of suicide.”

The research into this impact continues. In the meantime, mental health workers urge people to report feeling overwhelmed by national and international shockwaves to loved ones and their GP if its affecting their day-to-day lives.

“Political and world events can create a sense of great uncertainty in some people’s lives, and can make us feel anxious, stressed and down,” says Philippa Bradnock, Information Manager at the charity Mind. “Feeling upset about things like this is understandable, but if those feelings are overwhelming then it’s worth thinking about taking steps to look after yourself.”

If you've been affected by the issues mentioned in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123, or contact Mind’s Infoline on 0300 123 3393 in the UK; in the US you can call the Suicide Prevention Hotline on 1-800-273-8255.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.