I'm An EU National, And This Is How Brexit Has Hit My Mental Health

I used to say that I have a teflon skin, but since the referendum I've experienced everything from unprecedented stress to online threats to being followed.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week — a suitable moment to talk about the impact Brexit is having on mental health.

This applies to many. We have heard of the impact on politicians and journalists, and a recent study reveals that Brexit uncertainty affects the mental health of over 30% of UK adults.

For EU citizens at home in the UK and British citizens who live in another EU country figures would undoubtedly be even higher. They have had to deal with over 1050 days of living in limbo and that is showing; some EU citizens now state that they have suicidal thoughts as a result.

That this human cost of Brexit is still being largely ignored is something I find shocking. If Brexit has already proven one thing it is that people’s lives do not matter in the way they should. We can see this in many decisions and actions.

For five million EU and British citizens, Prime Minister Theresa May triggered it all when she chose to drag our rights into the Brexit negotiations. But the tragic reality is that EU leaders are now the ones choosing to keep us five million in the limbo Theresa May created. Their failure to ring-fence the citizens’ rights agreement means that the uncertainty continues. The choice to let that happen has immediate negative consequences — including for the mental health of many — and that is why it will not be looked upon kindly by history.

People who cannot cope with this situation face many challenges, not least the lack of professional help. With cuts in mental health care and long waiting times there is often no immediate support. That is one reason why groups and forums on social media have become so important to many as a route to self-help.

Many campaigners too have been exposed to unprecedented levels of stress and situations that impact on their mental health. All I need to do is look in the mirror to see.

I used to say that I have a teflon skin, but if I kept saying that it would be as bad a fudge as Labour’s European Election manifesto. The reality is that that skin has become very thin indeed.

Things I have seen and experienced, from various kinds of threats to descriptions of my rape, are clearly at the more extreme end, but after many discussions and public revelations — think of Jess Phillips’s recent experiences for example — I know that this is more widespread than many think. As a result, I have changed behaviours. I am much more cautious in many situations and much more wary of new people than I used to be.

One of the difficulties is that impacts can show randomly. I think back to a Saturday in March when I was heading to an event about EU citizens’ rights. I left my hotel. I went to get the tube. And five minutes later I sat on the tube with tears streaming down my face. There was no immediate trigger, but I have no doubt that it was the result of underlying stress to do with Brexit abuse I had received.

And impacts are often complex. This week, for example, marks the anniversary of the day that was the scariest day of my life. The day I was followed by someone after a Brexit-related event. Someone who changed their outfit while following me. Someone who could only be “shaken off” with the help of the police. But I consider this the scariest day of my life not primarily because of any of that, but because of one specific moment that I will never forget: the moment when a friend who was with me chose to take a stand for me: had the person following us had a weapon that would have been the moment to use it. There was no indication of such a danger, but the possibility of it, the thought of a friend being affected — that scared me more than anything else. The impact of what I do regularly extends beyond myself and I have only limited control over that. This is what I have always found the most difficult to deal with.

Ultimately, the slightly bizarre fact is that so much good, so many hearty laughs, have come out of this rather dark situation. That is why I can still do what I do. But that is true only because of the amazing people I have the privilege to know. Those who choose to take a stand for me, choose to make their spare bedroom “Tanja’s room”, choose to walk alongside me. But from the many stories I read and hear from fellow campaigners and EU and British citizens who have lived in limbo for such a long time, I know that not everyone has this support. We can — we must — change that. No matter what happens next, this will be a long walk still and we will be better off if we walk it together.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.

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