The ongoing saga of Brexit isn't only taking a toll on the UK's economy and influence on the global stage (and much more), it's also having a damaging impact at an individual level. Around four in 10 people reported feeing powerless (43%), angry (39%) or worried (38%) because of Brexit in the last year, according to a report released last week by the Mental Health Foundation. If extrapolated to the whole population, that would mean around 22 million people's wellbeing had been affected by the uncertain political situation.
"Many of the emotions that people told us about, like anger and powerlessness, are linked to a higher risk of mental health problems," the charity's chief executive, Mark Rowland, said. There was less difference between Remain and Leave voters than you might expect, with 34% of Leavers reporting having felt powerless versus 59% of Remainers. (An LSE study that examined a dataset of 35,000 people found increased levels of "mental distress" post-referendum, "with no significant difference" between those on each side of the political divide.)
Several other surveys have reported similar findings since 2016, and have found that those whose material security is affected (like business owners and farmers), and many of the 3.7 million EU citizens living in the UK concerned about their rights and status, are the most likely to be struggling, with some reported to be suffering with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts triggered by Brexit limbo. One study also drew a link between a rise in antidepressant prescriptions since 2016 and the referendum. No demographic appears to be immune, and Refinery29 has spoken to several young women – a group that overwhelmingly backed Remain – who are struggling with Brexit anxiety and other psychological stress.
Young people are using humour as a defence mechanism to deal with the anxiety and uncertainty.
Ciera Bassett, 22
"Brexit has created a lot of anxiety for me," said Ciera Bassett, 22, a graduate student in the West Midlands who voted Remain, adding that "the sheer uncertainty and instability" has left her worrying about her chances of getting a job. "Not knowing what the future holds is not a healthy mindset. The fear-mongering techniques used by some media outlets and the daily headlines saying that Brexit is going to kill the economy, that young people will never be able to buy a house and that life will never be the same, add to the worry and uncertainty."
Bassett's friends are suffering similarly. "It's got to the point where we joke that we’re screwed because of Brexit. This just shows that a lot of young people are using humour as a defence mechanism to deal with the anxiety and uncertainty they're feeling."
Hannah Bond, 21, a student currently studying in Vienna who voted Remain, hasn't been eating or sleeping properly since the government's historic defeat in the first meaningful vote on 15th January. "My stress and anxiety levels have increased as a result of Brexit, particularly recently," she said. "I experience panic attacks when watching events unfold in parliament, particularly the meaningful votes, and I get tearful watching and reading the Brexit news."
As the withdrawal date approaches, I've been self-medicating a lot with alcohol.
Rebecca Manzaroly, 35
Bond isn't only anxious about how useful her degree in German will be in a post-Brexit world, but also more generally about the country's future. "The uncertainty about our economy, health system and everything else, is a huge source of anxiety right now, as we have no idea what to expect or if the country will be able to succeed alone."
For others, Brexit has compounded several pre-existing mental health issues. Rebecca Manzaroly, 35, from Grantham, Lincolnshire, already suffered with depression, anxiety and PTSD, as well as undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, and Brexit, she says, has caused her "a great deal of depression, stress and worry for the future. As the withdrawal date approaches, I've been self-medicating a lot with alcohol."
The reported rise in hate crime post-Brexit, and fears about the UK's medicine supply, have also been a weight on Manzaroly's mind. "Not only do I suffer from mental illness, but I am also transgender and that in itself causes me a great deal of concern, because of the rise in hate crime and the tendency of bigoted people to target any minority or anyone they see as 'different'.
"I also worry about medication shortages, for both my antidepressants and HRT medication, which I have already experienced problems obtaining for the last two months, due to what I was told were 'manufacturer shortages'. [It seems like] no coincidence that Brexit is close and that a no-deal Brexit is likely – and terrifying."
Emma Wilson, 28, a freelance researcher and master's student in London, said she was "coming out of a period of depression" in June 2016, but that the referendum result aggravated her mental health. "It made me sad and fuelled my depression's belief that the world is dark and full of hate," she explained, citing the wave of racist and xenophobic hate crime that was reported in the aftermath.
My boyfriend had to take Twitter off my phone. My anxiety spiked.
Wilson has also suffered with anxiety over her future employment. "I work in the field of research and in mental health, where a lot of funding comes from the EU. Some projects have been put on hold and at the time in 2016, I really wanted the opportunity to work in the EU. I felt 'trapped' in the UK without the freedom to move and travel to the EU." On top of this, there's the fact that her boyfriend of two years is French and living in the UK. "It feels like a border has been put up between us," she explains, "when previously I felt so free and able to travel around Europe."
EU nationals living in the UK, some of whom have reported feeling suicidal at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, are also struggling. "I became obsessed with [Brexit], constantly reading articles and constantly monitoring Twitter for the latest news, developments and opinions," Stefanie*, 39, a translator in London who "no longer feels welcome" in the capital, told us. "It reached the point where my boyfriend had to take Twitter off my phone. My anxiety spiked. Nobody likes living in uncertainty and I'm certainly not very good at handling it.
"I felt alone, paralysed, unable to make decisions for my future and my personal life; not knowing whether I could continue being in this country, or whether I could continue being with my boyfriend." Brexit "destroyed [her] relationship," Stefanie adds, as she "became emotionally disengaged from [her] boyfriend as if I was preparing myself to be sent away." The threat of being the victim of a xenophobic attack also looms large, she adds.
Lucinda*, 37, a French citizen who works as a translator in the capital, also feels this danger, particularly as she lives in one of the few London boroughs to vote Leave. "I felt like staying home that day and not talking to anyone. It only got worse as Brexit is the only thing the media has talked about for the last two years. I started feeling very anxious and had to take days off from social media and the news just to stay calm. My anxiety levels went through the roof whenever European citizens' status was being discussed.
"My friends reassured me that it would all be fine and they wouldn't kick me out of the country, but frankly it didn't help." Lucinda, who has lived in the UK for nearly 15 years, said she, like many other EU citizens, feels "completely ignored and rejected" and like a "second-class citizen" in this post-referendum landscape.
It's the uncertainty of what's to come – particularly with Brexit Day now having been pushed back – that's contributing to a large proportion of people's struggles – and social media speculation doesn't help, a spokesperson for the mental health charity Anxiety UK told Refinery29. "Often, it is a fear of the unknown and not being in control that creates a feeling of panic and anxiety around certain issues for people who already have anxiety. As the outcome of Brexit is still unknown and may continue to change for some time, this could cause worry and anxiety in those predisposed to – or already affected by – anxiety.
"Some media coverage of Brexit and Brexit-related issues could cause individuals to feel nervous about the outcome, especially as the pathway ahead is seemingly unclear."
Emma Thomas, chief executive of the charity YoungMinds, also said "times of change and uncertainty can be unsettling – and this can have an impact on young people’s mental health," citing the potential damage caused by online and social media coverage which can lead people to be "bombarded with polarised views, anger and warnings about the future, which can exacerbate anxiety, particularly for young people already struggling with their mental health."
Thomas' advice is to take time to prioritise yourself. "Feeling concerned about the future, whether it’s related to politics or other news stories, is understandable, but it’s also important for [you] to think about [your] own wellbeing. Acknowledging your own feelings, and speaking to someone you trust about anything in the news that’s worrying you can help, and it’s okay to take a break if you need to – you don’t have to follow all the latest updates, or get involved in arguments online, if they’re making you feel worse."
*Names have been changed.