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MENTAL HEALTH

‘I am not alone’ – How Brexit’s Facebook groups can be life-saving therapy for anxious Britons

The dozens of Facebook groups where Brits in Europe, as well as EU nationals in the UK, meet and discuss Brexit have become counseling hubs for citizens increasingly suffering from anxiety, panic attacks and depression because of uncertainty linked to Brexit.

They are forums for exchanging views, dissecting Brexit and sharing useful information for expat citizens.

But they are also key counseling hubs in the absence of more formal structures to tackle the impact Brexit is having on the mental health of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU.

With just over sixty days to go to Brexit, many Facebook groups that bring together expat nationals – Remain in France Together, Brexpats Hear Our Voice, Bremain in Spain or In Limbo – are filled with anxiety and uncertainty.

“Around the Christmas holidays a lot of people were posting about panic attacks, depression and anxiety,” Elena Remigi told The Local.

Remigi manages the online group In Limbo: Our Brexit Testimonies, which she founded in March 2017 as a “safe place” for EU citizens facing the UK's post-Brexit “hostile environment.” She has also published a book featuring those accounts.

“People are really afraid of being the next Windrush generation,” says Remigi. “Brexit is affecting their mental health,” she adds, emphasizing that the most vulnerable among the EU nationals in the UK often suffer the most: the disabled, those on benefits, or the hard to reach. 

Remigi's In Limbo book documents 150 testimonies of EU nationals living in the UK.

The sequel, In Limbo Too, – written in partnership with Debra Williams from citizens' rights group Brexpats Hear Our Voice – turned its focus to British nationals in Europe, with an equal number of testimonies.

Both books focused on vulnerable demographics: the elderly, the disabled, those with limited documents or for whom Brexit is off the radar and therefore harder to adapt to.

Remigi says it has happened on several occasions that participants in the 'In Limbo' Facebook group have made suicidal posts, citing Brexit as a cause.

In such cases Remigi and her colleagues advise the concerned to call the Samaritans suicide prevention hotline, to seek help from their doctor or to reach out to conventional counseling services. 

“When we see people distressed we have a duty to refer them to counseling,” Remigi told The Local.

Brexit is going to change the lives of many of the UK's approximately 3.6 million EU citizens, as well as the lives of the 1.2 million or so British citizens living in the EU. 

Besides concerns about how their future work and residency status could change, each of the so-called '5 million' (the estimated sum of British nationals in the EU and EU nationals in the UK) has their own Brexit fears.

These include the issues of pensions, the rights of their children, access to medicine and healthcare, the right to work and access education, meeting new income assessment criteria for residency, proving retrospective documentation and much more.

Hostile environment

The Emotional Support Service for Europeans (ESSE) at London's Existential Academy treats EU nationals for depression and problems linked to Brexit. Volunteer therapists at ESSE, a project started in 2017, have treated more than 60 EU nationals in the UK since it opened. 

In many cases, a patient is an EU citizen with a British spouse. “The EU spouse may feel that they suddenly don't belong and feel tensions if there are children involved,” Jo Molle, a volunteer therapist at ESSE, told The Local.

Molle says she has also “worked with people who have experienced a lot of discrimination.” The British therapist of Italian origin cites a case of an EU national who felt she had to leave her rural home for a British city because she no longer felt welcome in the village after the Brexit vote. 

The ESSE project at the Existential Academy is really a drop in the ocean in tackling Brexit-related mental health issues – there are only so many patients the centre can work with.

“The waiting list is very long,” Molle told The Local, adding that with increasing demand for therapy from EU nationals outside London, sessions are often conducted over the phone. 

Molle says online groups are also a key therapy tool in the Brexit landscape, especially for people who are cut off from traditional therapy forums.

“People who are isolated and have no way of getting the support they need find them really useful,” says Molle.

Brexpats Hear Our Voice is one such group for Brits in the EU.

“Our group, like many other similar ones, is a closed group. Therefore, members consider it a safe space where they can share their worries and give each support,” Clarissa Killwick, an admin moderator with advocacy, research and support group Brexpats Hear Our Voice, told The Local. 

“Outside that comfortable space I have seen disbelief, and worse, that Brexit can actually affect someone's mental health. The fact that it seems impossible for those not directly affected to understand, means that groups are a real lifeline to those feeling very isolated,” adds Killwick, a British teacher based in northern Italy. 

“I feel less alone”

Many group members confirmed to The Local that the support they find has helped them navigate a difficult stage in their lives.

“The like-minded group has helped me enormously, beyond mere words. It has enabled me to process the stages of grief that I feel as a marginalized Brit in Europe, to know that whatever emotion I am feeling or experiencing, that I am not alone,” Fiona Scott-Wilson, a Brit based in Italy and a member of the Brexpats Hear Our Voice group, told The Local. 

“I feel less alone being part of this group, knowing we are all going through tough times of uncertainty,” adds Kerrana McAvoy Clément, a Brit based in Brussels. 

The Facebook groups exist as campaigning tools for British in Europe, but they also serve as digital safe havens for Brits uncertain about their futures and the ground beneath them.

“The whole Brexit process has been incredibly abusive and traumatic,” Denise Abel, formerly a psychotherapist for 30 years in the east of London, told The Local from her home in central Italy.

Referring to the time that has passed since the Brexit referendum result, she added: “Keeping people in limbo for over 900 days is abuse”. 

READ ALSO: How Brexit is fuelling stress and anxiety for vulnerable Brits in Europe

 

 

 

For members

BREXIT

What is the latest on Gibraltar’s Brexit status?

With 2023 approaching and negotiations between Gibraltar, the UK, EU and Spain dragging on for yet another year, what is the latest on Gibraltar and Brexit? Will they reach a deal before New Year and how could it affect life in Gibraltar and Spain?

What is the latest on Gibraltar's Brexit status?

As British politics tries to move on from Brexit, the tiny British territory at the southern tip of Spain, Gibraltar, has been stuck in political limbo since the referendum all the way back in 2016.

Gibraltar, which voted in favour of Remain during the referendum by a whopping 96 percent, was not included in the Brexit deal and has instead relied on a framework agreement made between the UK and Spain on New Year’s Eve in 2020.

After that framework was laid out, it was hoped that the various parties – that is, the Gibraltarian government, Spain, the EU, and the UK – would build on it and quickly find a wider treaty agreement establishing Gibraltar’s place on the European mainland in the post-Brexit world.

It was thought that Gibraltar could enter into a common travel area with the Schengen zone, limiting border controls and essentially creating a custom-made customs arrangement with the EU.

But since then, the negotiation process has stopped and started, with no deal being made and uncertainty dragging on through 2021.

Despite all parties still being relatively optimistic in the spring of 2022, no resolution has been found and 2023 is approaching.

Relying on the framework agreement alone, uncertainty about what exactly the rules are and how they should be implemented have caused confusion and long delays on the border.

The roadblocks

Progress in the multi-faceted negotiations to bash out a treaty and determine Gibraltar’s place in the post-Brexit world have repeatedly stumbled over the same roadblocks.

The main one is the issue of the border. Known in Spain and Gibraltar as La Línea – meaning ‘the line’ in reference to the Spanish town directly across the border, La Línea de la Concepción – the subject of the border and who exactly will patrol it (and on which side) has been a constant sticking point in negotiations.

Madrid and Brussels have approached the British government with a proposal for removing the border fence between Spain and Gibraltar in order to ease freedom of movement, Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said in late November 2022. There has been no immediate response from London.

The Gibraltarians refuse to accept Spanish boots on the ground and would prefer the European-wide Frontex border force. The British government feel this would be an impingement on British sovereignty. There’s also been the persistent issues of VAT and corporation tax considerations, as well as the British Navy base and how to police the waters around it.

Though there had been reports that the ongoing British driving license in Spain fiasco had been one of the reasons negotiations had stalled, the British ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliot categorically denied any connection between the issue of Gibraltar’s Brexit deal and British driving licence recognition earlier in November.

READ ALSO: CONFIRMED: Deal on UK licences in Spain agreed but still no exchange date

On different pages?

Not only do the long-standing sticking points remain, but it also seems that the various negotiating parties are on slightly different pages with regards to how exactly each seems to think the negotiations are going.

Judging by reports in the Spanish press in recent weeks, it appears that many in Spain may believe the negotiations are wrapping up and a conclusion could be found by New Year. This perception comes largely from comments made by Pascual Navarro, Spain’s State Secretary to the EU. Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Navarro claimed that negotiations have advanced so well that they were now only working ‘on the commas’ of the text – that is to say, tidying it up.

According to Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, though negotiations are ongoing, “we’re not there yet”. (Photo: JORGE GUERRERO/AFP)

“No issue that is blocked,” he said. “All of the text is on the table.” A full treaty, he suggested, could be signed “before the end of the year.”

Yet it seems the Gibraltarians don’t quite see the progress as positively as their neighbours. Last week the Gibraltar government, known as No.6, acknowledged Navarro’s optimism.

According to Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo however, though negotiations are ongoing, “we’re not there yet”.

No.6 remains positive and hopes for a deal, but in recent weeks has also published technical contingency plans for businesses to prepare for what they are calling a ‘Non-Negotiated Outcome’ – effectively a ‘no-deal’ in normal Brexit jargon.

The UK, however, seem to be somewhere in the middle. Like Navarro, the British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly recently suggested at a House of Commons select committee that only “a relatively small number” of issues remain to be resolved.

However, he also acknowledged the possibility of a non-negotiated outcome. “I think it’s legitimate to look at that [planning for a non-negotiated outcome] as part of our thinking,” Mr Cleverly said. “But obviously we are trying to avoid an NNO.”

Election year

If no deal is found by New Year, that would mean that negotiations drag into 2023 – election years for both Picardo and Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s Prime Minister.

Gibraltar is expected to have elections sometime in the second-half of the year, and Sánchez has to call an election by the end of 2023.

In many ways, Spanish domestic politics has the potential to play a far greater role in Gibraltar’s fate than British politics. In fact, the shadow of Spanish politics looms over these negotiations and the future relationship between Spain and Gibraltar, the UK and Spain, and the UK and EU.

If Sánchez’s PSOE were to lose the election, which according to the latest polling data is the most probable outcome, then it would be likely that Spain’s centre-right party PP would seek to renegotiate, if not outright reject, any deal made.

READ ALSO: Who will win Spain’s 2023 election – Sánchez or Feijóo?

If PP are unable to secure a ruling majority, however, they may well be forced to rely on the far-right party Vox, who have often used nationalist anti-Gibraltar rhetoric as a political weapon. If Vox were to enter into government, which is unlikely but a possibility, it’s safe to say any agreement – if one is even reached before then – would be torn up and the Spanish government would take a much harder line in negotiations.

As the consequences of Brexit churn on in Britain, in Gibraltar uncertainty looms.

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