The EU referendum has caused a mental health crisis
Jay Watts is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and senior lecturer working in London. She writes widely, and tweets as ‘Shrink at Large
A vote about borders finds echoes in the body, triggering primitive anxieties. No wonder therapists are reporting shockingly high levels of despair and distress
‘The result has brought uncertainty to nearly everyone, including the leave campaigners who are quickly backtracking on their promises.’
‘The result has brought uncertainty to nearly everyone, including the leave campaigners who are quickly backtracking on their promises.’ Photograph: Kevin Coombs/Reuters
Wednesday 29 June 2016 13.18 BST Last modified on Monday 4 July 2016 10.18 BST
In shrinks’ offices across the country, just as in homes, pubs and offices, people are trying to come to terms with the surprise and shock of the Brexit result. Strangers gather together to talk of how “the world is falling apart”.
Many people feel transported into a dystopian Britain that they “do not recognise, cannot understand”. Thousands are hatching plans to leave the country. Social media are full of suddenly violent flaming between former friends.
Therapists everywhere are reporting shockingly elevated levels of anxiety and despair, with few patients wishing to talk about anything else. Mental health referrals have already begun to mushroom. Why is the Brexit vote affecting us so personally? And, what does this tell us about the make-up of our psyches?
Don’t mourn, organise: a seven-step plan for fighting back against the Brexit vote
First, we need to consider what we were voting about. The Brexit vote was always about identity and the boundaries between ourselves and others, be that our relationship with Europe and migration, or the expert and politician.
Anything connected with borders brings with it an association to the body, and the boundary between inner and outer. This elicits primitive anxieties, the fears of both annihilation and colonisation. Such fears are heightened in relation to the EU, which carries associations with our biggest cultural trauma, that of the world wars.
The EU, of course, was formed as an antidote to the extreme nationalism that had devastated Europe, and cost so many millions of lives. Its presence in the cultural imagination is one reason otherwise sensible people are using the world wars to attack people on the other side (“in voting leave/remain you betrayed our grandfathers”), and politicians kept on mentioning the Nazis.
For some, the EU remains a great stabilising force, balancing the wilder policies of political parties, nationalism and selfishness. To vote leave is seen as a betrayal of all that is good, our “safe haven” from peril.
By contrast, for others, the EU has become an obstacle to the British greatness that we imagine stopped us from being invaded in the wars. The EU here is the great intruder, interfering with our ability to keep firm foundations, a vessel on to which we project everything that is wrong with society.
The EU is thus a strange object. It holds a dramatically different place in these two narratives, as both what allows safety and what deprives us of safety. Our position here will often depend on our own family history and the transgenerational place of migration within it.
Our leaders may have assumed that at least half of the country would be happy with the vote. This was a fatal error, for the result has brought uncertainty to nearly everyone – including the leave campaigners, who are quickly backtracking on their promises. We might wish to run away from home when we are kids, but if we get too far it’s pretty scary. And similarly, we may think we can become a greater nation once more if we go it alone, but it’s near impossible to maintain this idea when so many are looking at us in horror. Our sense of identity is partially based on the looking-glass self we see reflected back at us, after all.
The strange and panic-stricken limbo since last Friday shows that people on both sides are still absolutely uncertain as to what has happened. And uncertainty is one of the most difficult states to inhabit. A famous experiment showed that people would prefer to get an electric shock now than a potential shock later on. We do our best to turn uncertainty into fear, by seeking an object to love or to hate, to pin our emotions to. And so, post-referendum, we search for someone to blame. This is not just a reflection of real political concern, but a basic effort to turn uncertainty into fear, which is always more manageable.
Hence the repetitive attempts to impose a narrative that Brexit occurred because there were not enough experts, or because the experts weren’t good enough or passionate enough or sincere enough. While there may of course be some truth to each of these reproaches, we should recognise the underlying need to create scapegoats as containers for our destructive feelings at this time of profound crisis and uncertainty. That’s why implosions in politics so often follow explosions.
We must never act on an answer unless we can be sure we have asked the right question. The consequences of doing so, in psychiatry as one example, can be devastating. Our current levels of uncertainty do not suggest voters have responded stupidly, as current discourse continues to imply. To carry on suggesting so will only increase the levels of anxiety, hate and despair in society, as individual symptoms are inherently political.
Rather than allowing our uncertainty to act as a conduit to self-destructive and scapegoating behaviour, we must use it as a call to action, a clarion call to think more about the questions of belonging, safety and identity that lie behind the actions of both leave and remain voters.
If the vote tells us that traditional forms of governance have failed – and levels of malaise certainly suggest this – we must not act out our disquiet rashly in cutting links with the EU. Rather, we must use this moment to pause, and to explore new ways of relating to one another in a radically different world.