Elly Wright can’t sleep through the night.
The Dutch native, who has lived in Britain for 51 years, keeps thinking about the black boots of Nazi soldiers marching by her basement window as they brought Jews to a nearby camp in her homeland. The flashbacks have been triggered by Britain’s heated debate over leaving the European Union, which has brought division, strife and fear of foreigners. The 77-year-old painter says it has shattered her sense of belonging.
“(Britain) is my home,” Wright said quietly. “That is being taken away from me.” Wright isn’t alone in her angst. The acrimony over Brexit, which has reached fever pitch as deadlines come and go while politicians squabble, is affecting the mental well-being of people from Belfast to Brighton.
Job uncertainty. Visa worries. Confrontational conversations between family members or friends with opposing views on Brexit. The fatigue and stress caused by three years of conflict has spawned new terms: Brexhaustion or Strexit.
“It’s a civil war,” said Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Business School. “What the country is going through is not a war with Europe. It’s not us against them. It’s internal.” Just when some thought a conclusion could be drawn, Britain’s departure was delayed by six months at an emergency EU summit this week. Whether in favour of exit or hoping to stay, the long argument just got longer, and, for many more stressful.
Some have taken note of the trend. Online meditation provider Headspace has added bespoke meditations to help people manage Brexit stress, addressing issues such as having difficult conversations and what to do when you feel overwhelmed. Mike Ward, a London-based therapist who specialises in treating anxiety, estimates that some 40 per cent of his patients now bring up Brexit-related issues, while cognitive-behavioural clinical hypnotherapist Becca Teers says many of her clients struggle with their lack of control over how Brexit might affect them.
Researchers at the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance found that the “subjective well-being,” or happiness, of Britons has declined since the 2016 referendum regardless of a person’s position on Brexit. The researchers believe this is because those in favour of remaining in the EU are upset with the outcome, and those who want to leave are unhappy with how politicians are handling the process.
The study was based on an analysis of the Eurobarometer surveys conducted every year that ask 1,000 people in each EU country about the economic outlook, their job prospects and issues ranging from terrorism to immigration and climate change.
Business consultant BritainThinks asked focus groups to name a song that encapsulated their emotions about Brexit. Their answer: the theme song from the classic horror movie “The Exorcist.” And that question was asked before the EU stretched the deadline to Oct 31, Halloween.
“People consistently tell us how worried (Brexit) makes them feel,” said Tom Clarkson, research director at BritainThinks. “It’s just pessimistic mood music in the background.” Brexit has been a major story in Britain since before the June 2016 referendum, as the country tries to unpick the legal and economic ties that have bound it to the EU for over 40 years. Things have ramped up since December as Parliament repeatedly rejected a withdrawal agreement negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May, raising the prospect of a chaotic no-deal exit that could have devastating effects on the economy.
Television news broadcasts are dominated by Brexit, with pundits dissecting daily developments and politicians trading insults. Some people are glued to live parliamentary debates with a dedication normally reserved for soccer, but others have tuned out, unable to bear news of the latest incremental development that seems to resolve nothing. Meanwhile, issues like a surge in knife crime, homelessness and rising childhood poverty get scant coverage.
Wright, for example, is watching the debates in Parliament, trying to make sense of all the arcane procedures and motions, knowing that the decision has implications for her life.
“I try to curtail (my viewing), but I get sucked in,” she said. “I want to understand.” Members of Parliament aren’t immune to the stress. Lawmakers say they regularly receive death threats because of their positions on Brexit and some have publicly broken down in tears.
Andrew Percy, an MP from the governing Conservative Party, said recently that he had found a cupboard inside the House of Commons where he occasionally retreats for a few moments of calm between debates.
“It feels as if we are under siege,” Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bryant told the Times. “I know three MPs who have partners who are dying. They daily have to make the decision of whether to go home to see them or hang out for a vote that may never happen.” Beyond Westminster, uncertainty is pervasive as companies try to prepare for the future without knowing what the economic rules will be.
Autoworkers are already getting bad news, as companies like Honda and Nissan curtail investment to focus on countries where there is less insecurity. Bankers, farmworkers, even doctors and nurses in the National Health Service are wondering what the future holds.
“Going on for three years, people look around them and see that people are losing jobs, companies planning to move staff. It’s been three years of constant instability,” said Cooper, an expert on workplace issues.
That frustration recently spilled into the streets, with hundreds of thousands marching on Parliament to demand that the government give the people a second vote on leaving the EU.
Less than a week later, after Parliament forced May to delay Britain’s departure, Brexit supporters held a smaller but equally animated protest to decry politicians they said were ignoring the will of 17.4 million people who voted to leave.
In the middle of this morass sit people like Elena Remigi, who runs the In Limbo Project, a Facebook forum for EU citizens living in the United Kingdom.
One recent post tries to explain what Brexit means for many expatriates by using imagery from Dante’s medieval poem “Inferno,” where “the straight path has been lost” in a dark forest.
“The dark forest truly represents our limbo: a place of uncertainty, sadness, confusion, fragility, anger and many other painful feelings,” she wrote.
“The human cost is huge and it has been hugely underestimated,” Remigi later told The Associated Press. “I find that as more time goes by the more stressed people are.”
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 15th, 2019