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EMMY VAN DEURZEN: ​Brexit feels like an experiment to test our sanity

A pro-Brexit protester. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images. - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Psychotherapist Emmy van Deurzen on the impact of Brexit on mental health and the launch of an initiative which tries to help those affected

Each day brings new information about the devastation that leaving the EU will visit upon us from next April, when we plan to cut ourselves off from our trusted partners. Our descent in the world has already begun and prefigures the enormity of what is going to happen.

Many of us are acutely aware of the Orwellian times we now inhabit. Those in charge of the country appear to live in a daze of self-deception and denial. They exhibit a strange determination to continue burning bridges that we have spent many decades constructing and that are essential to our connectivity and survival.

Sometimes it almost seems as if we are on trial, as if a social experiment is being rolled out to test our personal resilience and sanity.

We all respond differently. Some are carrying on with their lives as if nothing has happened and all is normal. Some are still in shock and can’t quite believe this is happening. Some are tearing out their hair in despair. It all seems so counter intuitive and nonsensical.

It is as if a shadow of madness has crept over our nation. We feel weary of all the fighting, disorientated and uncertain about the future. Very few of us are exempt from these reactions: in one-way or another the spectre of Brexit is affecting us.

Some weeks ago, Dr Helen De Cruz, from Oxford Brookes University, and I did a survey of 1,300 UK citizens who had voted to Remain. Their responses show clearly how they have been feeling since the referendum. Theirs are strong and deep emotions. Two years after the votes, they feel devastated, angry, depressed, betrayed and ashamed.

They use words like ‘gutted’ and ‘heartbroken’ and ‘despair’. This is intense and intimate stuff. What has happened to people is personal. They feel their lives have been totally changed by what has happened. The vote has struck at the core of their identity and continues to dominate their everyday experience. They are not about to let go of these feelings.

The word cloud illustrates the shape and intensity of this emotional landscape. The size of the words indicates the frequency of their use. The passion expressed should be food for thought for all of us.

Let’s not forget that while 17.4 million people voted to exit the EU, 16.1 million of us voted not to: that is a lot of people in the country who feel upset and who have not been listened to. Of course there are also quite a few who voted Leave and who now regret that choice and who feel guilty and regretful.

Few people really knew what was at stake and what would happen and the impact of Brexit is much worse than people expected. In other words, the mood in the country is not good.

But while many Remainers feel this deeply, there are others in the UK who are feeling even worse. We need to keep remembering that in addition to the 16.1 million who voted to stay, there were some five million potential voters who were disenfranchised from the vote and who would have been likely to vote Remain as well.

These are the 3.5 million EU citizens who are settled in the UK, and the UK citizens who have been resident abroad for more than 15 years. They are the worst affected by Brexit and have suffered uncertainty for two years. They feel that they have been treated as second-class citizens by not being allowed to participate in a referendum that was vital to them.

Many of them feel very strongly about this as their personal circumstances are directly touched by a vote from which they were excluded. It does not sit well with our expectations of a democratic nation.

Some of these people have had their lives totally altered or brought into disarray by a situation they had no say in and they feel scandalised and victimised by this.

They have campaigned hard, but feel unheard and forsaken, for it seems as if their protests and arguments hardly matter. They are being told that they will be OK, with settled status, but many of them are only too aware that they may not qualify for this. In any case, settled status leaves a lot to be desired and still represents a loss of acquired rights that will have serious implications.

I have worked with many people who are in this position, as a psychotherapist, and some of them are truly devastated, because they have nowhere to turn. Not everyone can obtain settled status and many people have no home or family left in their country of origin, after having been here for decades.

They are British to all intents and purposes and should have been offered the sanctuary of dual nationality straight away. They feel as if they have lost their identity and their human rights. They have not been dealt with respectfully.

Of course, there are some in the group of EU citizens who are much more casual about the situation, especially those who are in the country on a temporary contract. Others have now been able to make different arrangements: some have obtained British citizenship and others have decided to leave the UK. We know that hundreds of thousands have already left and many more are planning to do so after Brexit. This exodus is already depleting our academic institutions, our fruit orchards and particularly our NHS, which as a consequence has thousands of vacancies for doctors and nurses.

Some citizens from the rest of the EU are not in a position to leave the UK, because they have put deep roots down and are tied to the country by marriage or profession. A significant number are so deeply upset that they are not able to cope with the situation and have broken down.

Because of this the Existential Academy (a community interest company) created a free emotional support service for Europeans (ESSE) in the UK, supported by New Europeans organisation. ESSE is a free service provided via phone and online. It is run and supervised by registered existential therapists but has no funding and is finding it harder and harder to find the volunteers to cope with the volume of people who need this support.

One thing our work at the ESSE clinic has shown us is how important it is for people to connect to others in a similar situation. People who withdraw and stop talking to others about the situation they find themselves in get worse very quickly. When they re-engage and realize they are taken seriously and can do something about their plight things improve immediately. Working with pro-European groups has been particularly beneficial for many. Being sucked into a vortex of gloom and doom is not good for any of us however and it is crucial for our resistance to remain positive, constructive and purposeful. Most importantly we must not let ourselves get isolated.

Activism is definitely therapeutic for people who are at risk of floundering into Brexit depression. There is nothing as uplifting as the feeling of solidarity and the hope that we shall, together, put an end to all this madness.

Emmy van Deurzen is a professor of psychology and psychotherapy at Middlesex University and principal of the Existential Academy, in London; she is also vice chairwoman of New Europeans and chairwoman of Voices for Europe.

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