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How Brexit Could Affect People with Anxiety Disorders in the UK

There are many things to consider. In a prosaic sense, what will it do for self-esteem and confidence?

by Eleanor Morgan
Jun 25 2016, 12:00am

A man in a boat who will be very happy about Brexit. Photo by Theo McInnes

When we woke yesterday to learn that Britain had voted to leave the European Union, an anxious rumble echoed through the guts of the 48 percent of Brits who voted to Remain. We'd spent the last weeks of this ugly, deeply fissuring campaign doing our best to believe our "What if?" ruminating wouldn't come manifest. But, look: it has.

At this stage it's still quite hard to comprehend the magnitude of what's happened, but make no mistake: it is the most dramatic event in Britain in a generation. It is anxious-making as hell. It felt like a farcical joke that the sun was shining brighter yesterday than it had in weeks.

We can see from the myriad infographics on every media outlet that staying inside the EU was something young people overwhelmingly wanted. As Owen Jones pointed out, the generational gap is critical to understanding yesterday's result: "The growing chasm between the generations has only been deepened," he wrote in the Guardian.

Increase in voting age directly correlated with increase in Leave votes. Seventy-three percent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 62 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds voted Remain. It's exhilarating to see how politicized and engaged young people are about their futures and their role in shaping change. But where does that excitement go now? What are they all supposed to think?

As someone who made up part of that 62 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds, I was voting for the future of my generation and the ones that will succeed me. My future children. I now feel terrified about what the word "future" means.

So what does it look like? Should I feel scared about having a child in the next few years because their options for travel and freedom of movement will be impacted? That the national health system that would support their growth is under more threat than ever of crumbling like chalk? Because I do now. I feel so angry that those with less time left have voted for a change that won't affect them in anywhere near the same way that it makes me want to cry. I have also, like many, considered what such momentous political upheaval will do to the minds of young people who didn't want this for a fucking second.

We hear the phrase "anxious times" applied to the young so often. One of the key points of significant research that came out of Cambridge University this month was that people under 35 are at a higher risk than older people of developing anxiety. Can we say with certainty that young people are more anxious than older people? No. It is not that simple.

As I wrote earlier this month in response to the research, there is a more complex picture behind the soundbite-y headlines, as there always is in reporting on mental health. And you can bet that there will be more to come in the aftermath of yesterday's result.

There are excessive pressures on the young today. We read about the mental toll of the relentless examinations school kids have to sit through, the negative impact of unemployment, poverty, and social media. It may be true that young people today are under more pressure than young people have ever been, and that social media is a contributing factor. As a hormonally radioactive teenager, the emotional investment in appearing "on" and active and beautiful on Instagram or Snapchat is great. But there is always a wider picture. Our notions of pressure are subjective.

In terms of poverty, for example, young people have always suffered. Only the context changes. Many psychologists say that the higher rates of diagnosed mental health problems like anxiety in young people today are, in a perverse way, a positive thing. How? Because they reflect a shift in the stigma surrounding mental health. In feeling more able to recognize and talk about their problems, due to better education and wider, open conversations (in which social media can play a very positive role in removing a sense of isolation), young people are steadily chipping away at the lingering shame that surrounds these things and getting the help they need. The more people talk, the easier it becomes. Older generations may still feel bound up in the keep quiet, pull-your-socks-up-and-get-on-with-it approach to mental distress that they've grown up with, but, again, this doesn't mean they're not suffering.

No single factor can be isolated when it comes to discerning why one person suffers with anxiety and another doesn't. All mental health problems are multi-causal; a highly individual confluence of factors both genetic and environmental. But it would be unwise to underestimate the impact yesterday's result might have on the psyche of Britain's young people who are already drowning in the quicksand of their predecessors' debt.

There are many things to consider. In a prosaic sense, what will it do for self-esteem and confidence? Many of the 73 percent of young Remainers will have been voting for the first time. And at a time when, generally speaking, open dialogue about thoughts and feelings is encouraged and celebrated, there is a risk that, today, many might feel disheartened—like they should shut up and get on with it. Stop moaning, stop making it personal, be thicker-skinned, stop being snowflakes. But these politics are personal. This result is personal.

Feelings of anger, sadness, frustration, and anxiety among young people today aren't just justified—they should be capitalized on. Should be. Many young people will become mobilized and fight back in their own way, join marches, etc., to feel more connected and part of a movement that voted for a better future on Thursday. Not everyone will, though. If you are someone whose resilience is low, yesterday might have been a real knock back. A person who is prone to anxiety, rumination, and a tendency to catastrophize about the future might find their anxiety levels have increased today. I know mine have. I can only imagine how a sensitive young person, a first-time voter, might feel.

If we consider young people's mental health at this point, we have to consider our NHS—the ailing elephant in the Remain room, but at the center of Leave's. At this point, the effects of Brexit on the already stretched mental health services that are affecting vulnerable young people almost don't bear thinking about. But very soon, we will be forced to think about them.

Earlier this month, Tory MP and former GP Sarah Wollaston defected from the Leave Campaign, saying its claim that Brexit would free up £350 million [$475 million] a week for the NHS was, patently, bollocks. As has been reported, once Britain's EU rebate is factored in, the maximum extra that could be spent on the NHS would be £1.4 billion [$2 billion], which would not even cover its £2.45 billion [$3.35 billion] deficit, said health academics at the London School of Economics and Imperial College London.

The NHS is likely to suffer like any publicly-funded service we have, and mental health care will be impacted. Any extra cash injections would come at the expense of severe cuts to other areas of government spending, and we have seen where priorities lie in our successive governments so far.

In a system that is already so stretched and under-funded due to money being taken away from local authorities, there are already so many young people in mental distress not being reached. We know this. What's going to happen now, if even the deficit can't be met?

The old might have been led to believe that migrants over-running the NHS have caused its problems, but this is not supported by any evidence. Now, the young will suffer. 13,000 EU citizens work in the NHS. About 78 percent of working age EU migrants in the UK are in work, most paying tax and contributing to the NHS, theoretically making it more able to cope with the higher numbers. That is fact. If there is an exodus of EU citizens working in the NHS—doctors, nurses, social workers—who will support our children if or when they become mentally unwell?

It feels like the odds are stacked against the young spirits who have become more invested in society than ever. We go on at young people all the time for being stuck to screens and not engaging with the "real" world, but this time they've looked, read, digested, and voted with their hearts and minds. They have been big thinkers and have become galvanized. For what? If the economy crashes and poverty—a risk factor for young people developing mental health problems—increases, along with a reduction in services to catch the fall if they do become distressed, how many hearts will we have broken? Now, more than ever, we need to listen to the young and what they need. We need to hear their anxieties. Because, right now, they might be feeling like their voices are falling on deaf ears.

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