If you’ve officially checked out of Brexit, you’re not alone – 83% of the public are fed up of seeing it on the news every day, according to a survey of more than 2,000 UK adults by international strategy consultancy BritainThinks.
It’s been three years since 52% of voters in the EU referendum voted for the UK to leave the European Union. Since then, millions of articles have been published charting every twist and turn in the negotiation process. It’s been confusing, drawn out and one thing is clear: MPs can’t agree on a solution.
The Article 50 deadline of 29 March 2019 passed with nothing to show for it and now we are where we are – in a week of European elections for MEPs who may never make it to Brussels if Theresa May’s Brexit deal is passed when she puts it to Parliament in a fourth vote in June. As cross-party talks between May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have collapsed, few of us are any the wiser.
And it’s in this context that public appetite for Brexit-related news appears to be on the wane. Since the March deadline, Google searches for Brexit have plummeted. And while some people remain committed to their news feeds, tuning in no matter how furious or helpless it makes them feel, a growing number of people are switching off from Brexit – and politics – altogether.
People are using bank holiday weekends and trips abroad as an excuse to check out. They are muting discussions on social media. Families and couples have unspoken agreements they won’t mention it full stop. Brexit fatigue is alive and real. And with 83% of the people surveyed by BritainThinks in agreement that the political establishment has “failed the country” when it comes to handling the EU negotiations, is it any wonder?
“I made a decision last year to just stop engaging with other people about Brexit and about politics in general – both in person and online,” says Emily Lavinia, a 29-year-old content consultant from London. “I take steps to avoid things that are negative as part of looking out for my mental health in general,” she adds. “I just found it annoying, so decided to check out.”
Since muting the B-word on social media, she says she has been much happier and less wound-up. She acknowledges that switching off in this way isn’t ideal as a citizen, but adds: “If I need information I just seek it out. I don’t need the extra stress in my life.”
Pam Custers, a psychotherapist who runs The Relationship Practice, believes that checking out from Brexit is beneficial for people’s mental wellbeing. Brexit has elicited a strong emotional response that is affecting all areas of life, she says – “it’s divided the country, it’s divided communities, it’s divided families” – but adds that it’s simply not sustainable for people to stay so highly-charged for such a prolonged period of time.
Among many European and international citizens living in the UK, anxiety levels are reaching tipping point. Elena Remigi, founder of the In Limbo Project, a support group for EU citizens living in the UK, previously told HuffPost UK that she was so concerned for the wellbeing of some members of her Facebook group that she has referred them to the Samaritans.
For journalist and lecturer Katrina Marshall Beharry, 28, from Milton Keynes, checking out has meant muting, blocking and unfollowing much of the online discussion – but this has also played out on a social level. She and her white British friends have decided they will not discuss Brexit (or indeed, the Windrush scandal) for the sake of their friendship. “From my perspective I barely understood it in its initial stages,” she says of Brexit, “and now that it is like a disemboweled and many-headed political dragon, my only interest is how it will affect my status as an immigrant here on a biometric residence permit.”
A lot of the information available doesn’t speak to the specific communities Brexit affects the most, she says: “Post-Brexit, how do I take a mini break to Cyprus on a non-British passport with an in-date residence permit?” Like many others, she is disappointed with the way Brexit has been handled and is concerned over the levels of “nationalism and cultural intolerance” it has given rise to, describing her approach as “keeping my head down”.
That’s not to say she finds it easy. As a journalist, she is interested in reading the news and wants to keep up to date, but finds the endless new lines and opinions on Brexit incredibly confusing. “My decision to check out is an avoidance of what I perceive to be reactions to a moral panic,” she says.
The 24/7 nature of social media has allowed us constant access and updates on every new development or discussion relating to the crisis. We’re bombarded with news alerts, and TV news and Twitter are an endless stream of opinion.
Professor Sarah Niblock, chief executive of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), told HuffPost UK that some of the media’s tactics are hard to handle: “The dominant news value today is to stir up as much emotion as possible. There is a huge emphasis on negativity, shock value and worst-case scenarios, much of which is speculation to fill demand for rolling 24/7 coverage when actual facts and new events are thin on the ground. Couple that with the fact that stress makes us hyper-vigilant, always looking for threats, and it becomes a vicious cycle.”
Switching off from this cycle needn’t mean a blanket ban, but learning how to avoid your individual stress triggers – which Pam Custers calls a positive step. She explains: “To choose when we want to engage with a topic as opposed to the topic being foisted upon us without our choice; disengaging from social media around the debate; choosing not to listen to every debate on TV or in the newspaper – it allows us to get some emotional distance.”
Cal King, 30, from London married his partner, who is French, last year. He was following Brexit discussions closely until 29 March and has been “actively avoiding” it ever since – he references pro-leave marches as the final nail in the coffin. He and his wife have decided they will leave the country in the long-term and, as a result, he has stopped reading and checking the news, and tends to avoid certain people who he knows would want to discuss Brexit. “Realistically I’m not sure stepping back has done much to help the anxiety,” he says. “But it does definitely take up less of my time now.”
King is not alone in his anxiety. One in three Brits feel that Brexit has had a negative impact on their mental health, according to a survey of more than 5,700 people by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). People spoke to HuffPost UK earlier this year about the challenges, citing worries about job loss, the impact on their family and travel, and, increasingly, how they will access food and medicine.
BritainThinks’ latest survey found 64% of the public agree that Brexit anxiety is bad for people’s mental health. Tom Clarkson, research director and author of the report, said that in recent focus groups, people told him unprompted that Brexit was impacting their mental health and “accentuating their anxiety”.
Over the past 12 months, he’s witnessed a consistent pattern of people becoming increasingly bored or disengaged with Brexit – and the story is the same regardless of whether they voted leave or remain.
But Clarkson is concerned if people are actively choosing to switch off, especially ahead of this week’s European elections. “I think it is a bad thing for society that people would be so disinterested and fed up with what’s going on that they wouldn’t pay attention to the details of the debate,” he said.
Jodie Jackson has spent the past decade researching the link between news consumption and mental health, after becoming depressed at the state of the world herself. She has since authored a book, ‘You Are What You Read’, focusing on ‘solutions-based’ news as the way forward.
Checking out of issues like Brexit is not always the best strategy for mental wellbeing, she says: “Negative emotions are a powerful breeding ground for positive action, personal growth and constructive transformation. It is important, however, to not have too much of it to the point where we become passively buried by the relentless negative and ongoing news.”
Instead, Jackson wants people to consume news in a more deliberate way, so that it empowers rather than disempowers them. She suggests tuning in less often but, when you do engage, to read or watch more in-depth coverage from trusted sources – and to include solutions-based news in your “media diet”. She recommends news sites like Positive News and The Correspondent – the latter is crowdfunded by the public and plans to start publishing later this year.
“Whilst we all feel Brexit fatigue, we can also be inspired by what people are doing in response to this issue,” she said, “the camaraderie and compassion that has been shown by those working from a place of hope not hate.”
Yet it seems a lot of people have already reached a saturation point with Brexit and the news surrounding it. Even students of politics are trying to distance themselves. Lucy O’Donnell, 18, from east London, says: “I’ve been increasingly finding that young people, like myself, are seeing Brexit as nothing but anxiety-inducing rubbish. The news coverage has been dire and bland, and any good news about it has been few and far between.”
O’Donnell is studying politics at A-level but says she can’t get her head around many aspects of Brexit. “I’ve personally decided to almost ignore it,” she admits. That said, she does plan to vote in the upcoming elections – “and in every election after!”
At this stage in the game, with the public – and arguably, the politicians – none the wiser about when Brexit will happen and how it will impact our day-to-day lives when it does, perhaps it is wise to take a step back. Pam Custers certainly stands by this and believes many people are simply preserving their emotional strength.
“When we’ve got healthy emotional boundaries and we understand that in some ways we are totally impotent to do anything, actually by taking a breather, one can recharge and respond again when our voices can be heard,” she says. “I think it’s inevitable people will start reengaging with the process.”