Words by Lydia Smith.
It has been more than two years since the UK voted to leave the EU and the future looks uncertain.
For many people, Brexit has left us with questions without answers. If Theresa May’s Brexit deal comes to fruition, what will it mean? What will a no deal look like? What will happen to the economy, and to jobs?
It’s unsurprising, then, that the referendum and the ensuing confusion – let alone the toxicity of political discourse – is having a profoundly negative impact on mental health, particularly among young people.
This is understandable, considering 75% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted to remain in the EU – so the decision to leave was primarily made by older generations.
In 2017, a survey of 3,000 18-to-30 year olds found a third of participants felt their mental health had taken a hit in the year following the EU referendum, with two out of five people naming Brexit as the main cause of anxiety.
Nearly a third said opportunities for young people had got worse.
It’s easy to label young people “snowflakes” for expressing fears over their futures, but research has shown their worries are genuine.
A 2017 report by the London School of Economic and Political Science found millennials were most concerned about Brexit’s impact on their ability to live and work in Europe, the underfunding of public health services, and rising levels of racism and intolerance.
It also found young people were concerned that a weaker economy would impact schooling, higher education, jobs and housing prospects.
“It’s stressful because we know everything is going to be s**t but also it is this huge unknown,” says Alex, 28. “So we know it will be bad – jobs will be lost, the housing market will suffer and rights are at risk but then it also feels like this awful black hole which just looms over everything.
“I think also I’m stressed about what kind of country this means Britain will be and whether that represents me (clue – no). That feels less tangible, but it eats away at you about what this says about all us.”
Steps we can take to reduce the stress and anxiety triggered by Brexit
Isabella Goldie, director of development and delivery at the Mental Health Foundation, explains that being faced with change – particularly where there may be a potential threat or negative consequences – releases stress hormones and our “fight or flight” response.
“But due to the complexity, it’s hard for people to be clear who or what they should be ‘fighting’ or what flight might look like. So we can get locked in to an overwhelming level of stress with no clear way to take action to reduce it,” she adds. “It’s important for our health to not let stress become toxic. So our tips are ways to manage your exposure to stressful news.”
Manage your exposure
There are the usual tips, such as exercising regularly, meditating, doing fun activities, spending time with others, all of which boost self-esteem.
But when the trigger is a news event, Goldie says, managing exposure is also a good idea.
She advises spring cleaning your apps or turning off notifications as a practical way of limiting the demands they place on our attention. We all know apps can be addictive, so limiting your news intake to sources in web browsers can be a good way of being more consciously engaged with the news.
That being said, it’s also important to switch off from what’s going on sometimes.
Turning off the TV or avoiding Twitter – even just for an hour or so – can give us the headspace to comprehend and cope with the news. It’s also important to recognise your triggers to help you avoid seeing something upsetting.
Pick your battles
It’s difficult to hold your tongue when it comes to political discussion, whether it’s online or with friends and family, but picking your battles can save you a lot of stress.
“Sometimes we see things posted online that trigger a strong reaction in us: we have to ask before commenting and committing our energy to something, whether or not this is likely to make us feel better or worse,” Goldie says. “Sometimes it’s better to resist the urge to immediately respond in a state of agitation and wait a couple of hours to see whether we still think it is worth responding to.”
Without our mental health, she adds, we have much less to give to any of the social or political causes we might be concerned about.
It’s also important to keep an eye out for friends of family who might be struggling.
“Unpredictability and volatility are becoming the new normal,” Goldie says. “Now, as much as at any time, we need to find ways of supporting each other and building our collective resilience.”
It is better to act early if you feel rising levels of stress – there’s no such thing as a snowflake and poor mental health is nothing to be ashamed of.
Researchers at King’s College London and Harvard University found the number of antidepressants prescribed in England rose after the referendum in 2016, which they attributed to the uncertainty of the future of the country and the impact of austerity. If you’re struggling, speak to your GP, talk to friends and family, or get support from the Mental Health Foundation, Mind or other organisations.
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