How has Brexit affected the mental health of EU citizens in Scotland? Piotr Teodorowski, Ruth Woods and Catriona Kennedy (Robert Gordon University) talked to migrants in Edinburgh and Aberdeen and found that the ongoing uncertainty about their status, as well as feelings of shock and rejection, had affected their wellbeing and in some cases worsened existing mental health problems.
The result of the 2016 referendum led to a rise in hate crime, uncertainty around the future rights of EU nationals in the UK, and the emergence of pro-EU citizens’ organisations such as the 3 million. Previous research shows that discrimination or perceived discrimination has a negative impact on health, and according to Berry’s theory of acculturation, migrants’ experiences of stress are partially determined by the attitude of the host nation towards them.
Insofar as the result of the Brexit referendum represents a hostile attitude to migrants from the EU, we might expect their mental health to be affected. Brexit would be a typical example of this kind of stressor. But until now, there has been no study exploring the impact of Brexit on mental health and wellbeing.
To fill this gap, in February and March 2019 we conducted several focus groups in Edinburgh and Aberdeen with EU citizens, examining what impact Brexit had on them and especially on their mental health and wellbeing. We explored how they perceived the UK and Scotland before the vote took place, how they reacted to the result, and how it affected them in the short and long term. The findings of this study were published in June at an event hosted by the European Parliament Liaison Office in Edinburgh.
For the purpose of this study, we took a broad definition of mental health to ensure that we covered wellbeing, not just mental illnesses. Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. (World Health Organisation)
All participants were at least 18 years old and had been living in the UK prior to the 2016 referendum. The focus groups were open to any non-UK EU nationals, and we reached 13 different nationalities. The largest group of participants were Polish, which is representative of EU nationals in Scotland. There was a balanced representation of pre- and post-2014 accession states. The sample was also diverse around the length of residence in UK (mean of 10.5 years), age (range from 18 to 61 years), and employment (various professions, students, a jobseeker, a pensioner, self-employed).
When it came to their wellbeing before the referendum, the participants reported a largely – but not entirely – positive picture. EU citizens perceived Scotland and the UK as a welcoming place. Often, after settling in, our participants described Scotland as their home, and felt agitated by suggestions to the contrary.
‘I’ve been here 15 years now, in Edinburgh, and that’s straight from Poland. I felt very, very welcome, it, and it was, it immediately was home and I felt embraced.’
‘My entire adult life I have spent in the UK and Scotland and this is home and, it upsets me whenever anyone asks me, ‘where’s home?’ And I’m like Edinburgh (…) if I had anywhere to go I would but, I don’t feel like I have anywhere else to go, this is home.’
The referendum result came as an unexpected and unwelcome surprise to most EU citizens. The consequences of the vote were not clear and created uncertainty, anxiousness and an emotional response. The uncertainty was an ongoing theme through all discussions on the impact of Brexit. Participants felt that it is not possible to plan their future and make life-changing decisions such as accepting a new job, getting a mortgage or starting a family.
‘I was expecting, personally different results. Until the last moment I couldn’t believe it would happen so, I was travelling actually home (…) at exactly that time, in the morning I was in the airport (…) and I was quite shocked myself and mainly to think about uncertainty and the future and what to do, whether to accept the job, whether to consider any other country to go and pursue some career opportunities but, I decided to try it to see how it would go, but it was a bit of shock’
The main themes in our analysis linked clearly with different aspects of the WHO definition of mental health. Firstly, EU citizens could not fully realise their potential, as their future (including legal status and rights) was uncertain. Secondly, their ability and willingness to contribute to the local community may be diminished, as they felt rejected and disfranchised from British society. Some perceived that anti-migration sentiments caused the result. As EU citizens were not allowed to vote in contrast to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum), they felt voiceless and disempowered.
‘[W]hat grips me (…) is the rhetoric in media as if for all these years BBC was saying about Brexit and there was no one interview with any Europeans who would be living here, no one would bring it up, like we wouldn’t exist. Like they speak of us like bags with potatoes which you can throw somewhere.’
Experiences of uncertainty and rejection affected EU citizens’ wellbeing and coping ability, with some experiencing mourning and trauma, reduced overall wellbeing, and a deterioration of existing mental illnesses.
‘I was diagnosed with depression in 2017 and of course, it’s not only because of Brexit but, I think Brexit was one of the (…) factors. (…) had the results of referendum would be different maybe I wouldn’t suffer so much from it’
‘I was diagnosed with a mental health issue when I was at university already (…) but, Brexit did take me backwards a little bit, but I have learned how to cope with my stress a little bit better (…) I did have a number of panic attacks shortly after the Brexit [referendum] and I have not been able to sleep.’
Coping with the impact of Brexit was challenging. Traditional traumatic experiences go through various stages of mourning: denial, sadness and acceptance. As Brexit was an ongoing process, almost impossible to avoid, participants were forced to keep revisiting these stages.
‘[W]hen you think about it, say you are victim of, I don’t know, you get shot at work, right, then you wouldn’t go to see a movie where they shoot people but, there is no way that I can be in a safe space, there is no street, there is no phone conversation, there is no bus I can be on and not still hear that dreaded word Brexit’
Our exploratory study has shown that Brexit is affecting the mental health and wellbeing of EU citizens — and provides an unsettling insight into integration and cohesion in the UK. Further research is crucial to better understand Brexit’s effects on EU citizens and to develop effective interventions for them. Whether – and how – the UK leaves the EU will influence EU citizens’ experiences further, but the negative consequences of the Brexit vote will remain regardless. We need a comprehensive new strategy to support EU citizens on both national and local levels.
This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.
Ruth Woods is a Lecturer in Psychology at Robert Gordon University.
Catriona Kennedy is Professor of Community Nursing at Robert Gordon University.