How Brexit is affecting mental health

Uncertainty surrounding UK’s future is having worrying effects on the nation’s psyche

Suicide is the number one killer of British men under-40
(Image credit: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The limbo of an uncertain Brexit is damaging not only the nation’s economy but also the mental well-being of its people, according to health experts.

Uncertainty over the future of businesses in Britain and the rights and status of EU nationals following the UK’s scheduled departure from the bloc have contributed to the malaise. And the situation has become even more chaotic following the defeat of Theresa May’s Brexit deal in a Commons vote this week.

The founder of the In Limbo project, which seeks to represent EU nationals in Britain, told The Independent that there had been an increase in the number of people expressing suicidal thoughts on the group’s Facebook page.

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Speaking to the newspaper at the start of the year, Elena Remigi said: “It’s not that we didn’t have them before, but it would be one every few months. In the last couple of weeks, as we’ve come into the festive season and closer to 29 March, there have suddenly been four. It sends alarm bells ringing.

“And in terms of broader mental health problems, it’s much worse than before. People are expressing more grim thoughts or saying they’re depressed or having panic attacks.”

The possible impact of Brexit on mental health was assessed by the NHS Confederation’s Mental Health Network almost a year after the EU referendum, as the possible implications of leaving the bloc became clearer.

Elisabetta Zanon, director of the NHS European Office, said that as well as those directly affected by Brexit such as EU citizens, the uncertainty was also likely to affect the wider population group.

“A climate of uncertainty if perpetrated for a long period of time could impact on the mental and physical health of people, potentially leading to an increase in demand of services,” she wrote.

Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that an increasing number of farmers were reaching out to crisis networks for help as they struggle to deal with the economic impact of both Brexit and bad weather.

“I’ve had many worrying telephone calls just in the last two or three weeks from farmers who want to give up, and who are on suicide watch. But what I fear most is those who do not telephone you,” Alistair Mackintosh, of the National Farmers’ Union, told the newspaper.

London-based clinical psychologist Hamira Riaz says it is unsurprising that the uncertainty over Brexit is weighing on mental health.

If “you suddenly find that decisions that are made on a national level are impacting your material security, that is definitely going to be a significant negative life event”, she told Quartz. “And we know that people facing significant negative life events can tip over into mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.”

Researchers from the London School of Economics have examined the extent of the impact of Brexit on people’s mental health.

The study - outlined in a paper published in the university’s Economica journal in February - looked at a dataset of 35,000 people in the UK’s Household Survey. The researchers found a statistically significant increase in mental distress since the 2016 referendum, principally among people who voted to remain in the EU, who reported symptoms ranging from trouble concentrating to unhappiness, depression and feelings of worthlessness.

But it isn’t not just Remainers who are feeling the burden. A female Leave voter from Reading told HuffPost last year: “I have felt anxious watching the news, seeing how disastrously the negotiations are going and the turmoil being displayed within our political parties.”

The woman, who asked not to be named, added: “Jobs are worrying me, particularly as I am currently on a year’s contract and will be unemployed in six months’ time. Also, the cost of things will affect everyone including me.”

The fears about a nationwide mental health crisis comes as experts warn that Brexit may also have a negative impact on support services.

An NHS briefing last year warned that implications of the UK’s departure from the European Union for the health service were “far reaching”, in part because of potential problems with workforce supply and regulation.

Roughly 165,000 NHS employees are EU nationals, “and while those that are already in the UK can apply to stay, domestic recruitment alone won’t be able to meet future staffing needs”, says Quartz.

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