If there is one topic that more than anything else in recent memory has in equal terms overwhelmed, fascinated and exhausted people living in the UK, it has to be Brexit
I’m not sure if I should be agreeing with those calling it a Marmite issue. Whilst it is certainly divisive, it has much more important and far reaching social and economic implications than whether people love or hate a yeast extract spread. And, regardless of where we stand on the issue, we know one thing for certain: it’s stressing us out.
The survey run by the Mental Health Foundation in March this year (close to the first Brexit deadline) revealed that millions across the nation have been left feeling powerless, angry or worried. More than one in 10 people in the survey reported that Brexit had caused them problems with sleeping in the last year, and almost two in 10 said it had caused them ‘high levels of stress’.
We know from research that experiences of conflict in relationships, problems with sleeping and feelings of powerlessness are all associated with higher levels of distress and poor wellbeing. We know our environment is important to our mental health. And from other examples worldwide, we know that an unstable political environment can potentially affect people’s mental health and increase anxiety levels. We also know that our children and young people are increasingly anxious, avoiding social activities or having nightmares because of scary global news.
The survey said that such feelings are shared among those who voted Leave or Remain. We have either been exhausted by a mission to overturn the outcome and its likely adverse impacts, or demoralised by the delay in fulfilling the promise of the referendum. We have argued with our family, friends or colleagues. We have lost sleep over it. We have been triggered by the social implications of Brexit. We have engaged in endless political conversations because of Brexit and changed two Prime Ministers over it.
Talking about it
When it comes specifically to mental health, having spoken to our followers and supporters on social media, some are too overwhelmed by their own issues to deal with Brexit and have questioned why the MHF and Happiful want to talk about it, when there are so many other important topics at the moment in the sector. But then we have also been criticised for not talking enough about Brexit when it’s consuming the nation’s media and exhausting the nation’s patience. Both views are valid.
Almost six months on from the last survey, we are again approaching a crossroads with a new deadline fast approaching in October. Many of you told me that you are afraid of what Brexit means for you and your circumstances and that you are struggling to cope as a result. Others were anxious of how the nation’s values are being affected, with polarisation, intolerance and negativity being very persistent.
Someone told me: “I feel frightened of the angry world outside my door”. Regardless of where we stand on Brexit, it shouldn’t be acceptable for any of us to feel like that.
As with everything in mental health, we shouldn’t expect that Brexit anxiety is affecting everyone equally. Non-British citizens, ethnic and religious minorities, people working in sectors most directly affected by European contracts and funding, and people with existing mental health or other long-term problems - to name a few - have been disproportionately affected.
Some solutions and ways to address this impact have emerged. For example, at MHF we have been working over the past few months in collaboration with Public Health Wales on research to propose what would work best to support farmers and their families in this time of uncertainty.
Ways to cope
This work is a good example of how a lot of us have been working strategically to help mitigate the impact of these Brexit-related feelings and emotions (but also the very real economic transitions) on people’s mental health. But every person has been developing new coping mechanisms of their own to deal with the 24-hour news cycle. Some of you told me that these mechanisms varied from actively deciding to ignore the topic, to engaging in new political thinking and petitions, and from talking to friends to getting better sleep.
Below are some tips on how to look after your mental health at times of political uncertainty and change, specifically referencing Brexit and what our supporters told us on social media. We understand that we have to stay informed, but knowing our limits, and being able to engage with our communities (live or online) in a meaningful way will be important. As will us being able to have honest conversations with our children about the political and social environment.
The Brexit talk and anxiety are here to stay. At MHF we will continue to work strategically towards good mental health for all. But for many of us, empowering our voice through being involved in our communities and staying close to friends will be the only possible contribution. And we shouldn’t underestimate how important this positive contribution is.
Top tips for dealing with Brexit anxiety
Stay informed, but be aware of your limits
- Consider how much information and news you take in and reflect on how it’s affecting you. If you are getting angry or frustrated, reduce your intake of news.
- If a specific topic comes up that you feel strongly about, you could post on social media. But think first and avoid ranting, and don’t rise to the bait of abusive language.
- Don’t get upset if everyone doesn’t agree with your point of view.
- You may want to mute or turn off news notifications on your smartphone or limit your news intake to once daily. You could read a morning paper or website or watch the evening news.
- Remember that not everything you may read or hear is necessarily true, the Brexit debate can be polarising leading to exaggeration from all sides of the argument.
Get involved with your community
- If you feel that political change is affecting your community, see if you can be meaningfully involved with local grassroots or community groups working on issues that are important to you.
- We know that helping others is good for your mental health.
- For example, if you are concerned about Brexit’s impact, try volunteering for something that will help people in need in your local community.
- You may want to seek the views of your local MP who represents you in Parliament or see if any local events have been organised where Brexit is being discussed.
Use your voice
- Regardless of where you stand on Brexit or other issues, you may feel powerless if you have opinions but remain distant.
- You could join a political party if you feel this could amplify your voice, or you could also explore ways to be engaged in a political community.
- For example, you could take part in a peaceful organised rally, attend hustings or join relevant events or debates.
- Civic and political activism may make you feel more empowered and give you an avenue to express your thoughts in a constructive way.
- You could write a letter to your local paper or online community forums.
For more tips on looking after your mental health during Brexit and political change, visit the Mental Health Foundation website.
If you're worried about your mental health, know there is plenty of support available. For a list of helplines and online resources, visit our Where to get help page.
For more information about mental health, common mental health concerns and the treatment available, or to find a therapist, visit Counselling Directory. You can also search counsellors local to you by entering your location in the box below.