Imagine a life without Brexit? Hard to do, isn’t it? Ah, those halcyon days, when we didn’t have front-row seats to what, with each passing day, looks like the disintegration of a once-civilised society.
What a dampener it all is on the mood. There’s hardly been a day recently when the stress levels haven’t risen, that cortisol spike as you register the Brexit countdown clock, or the ‘Countdown to no-deal Brexit’ on the bottom of the screen, while you await the result of yet another Commons vote, and the inevitable tweet of reaction from some EU bigwig.
Have you noticed how often the Brexit fallout is described in psychological terms: A collective mental breakdown, act of political self harm, or political suicide.
If Harry Potter turned up on my doorstep and told me he could grant me a mid-level spell, I think I’d opt for a Brexit-free week, to have it banished from my mind, to magic away the stress.
It has infected everything, not least a recent visit to my childhood sweet shop, which remains reassuringly the same, and where I years ago spent hours deciding on penny and half-penny sweets. Only a very select few children were allowed to open the ice cream freezer. I stood there with my own two children, bathed in nostalgia, only to be Brexit-punched out of it when it was revealed that the no-longer-costing-a-penny jellies and chewies could be under threat because of supply lines. Nothing in this nightmare scenario is sacred.
Or the night recently, when, yet again, we were glued to the television to watch the latest crisis unfold, and the eldest asked quietly if, as a result of all of this, there might be “war in the North”.
The state of being in a constant climate of uncertainty does take its psychological toll. There is no fantasy paradise exit off the Brexit hamster wheel. No matter what happens now, so much damage has been done that even the least-worst options are unpalatable. It’s part of what makes it so wearing on the brain: The constant influx of information, attempts at understanding complicated concepts or even votes, yet no satisfactory solution to hope for anymore.
It wasn’t just Brexit that melted our heads in February, but it tells its own story that consumer confidence here took a serious dip that month. That was according to figures released by KBC Bank and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). The consumer sentiment index fell to 86.5 in February, from 98.8 in January, a significant drop on the 105.2 recorded during the same month last year. We’re worried emotionally and economically.
In the UK at the moment, the preferred mode of communication is now constant roaring, insulting, and threatening. Inside Westminster, MPs throw insults across the floor, while the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, does what we now recognise as his customary bellowing to keep order. You’d want to send in a childcare expert to give a few tips on how to quieten a ridiculously rowdy crowd of pre-schoolers without having to bellow to the point where it looks like you’re going to have a heart attack.
Outside the British parliament, they are shouting and pushing and shoving at each other. Protesters prowl around menacingly, on the look out for politicians or journalists they can heckle and intimidate. How could you not feel depressed and powerless, witnessing all the displays of racism and xenophobia, as the UK population turns on itself?
For once, British prime minister Theresa May hit the nail on the head when she stood outside Downing Street and said: “You, the public, have had enough.”
She was talking to her own public, but we undoubtedly deserved inclusion, for who among us is not suffering a degree of ‘Strexit’, or, if you prefer, BS, or Brexit Stress?
There is a general feeling that our Government is doing a very good job in difficult circumstances. But even as we heard French president Emmanuel Macron say this week that his country “will never abandon Ireland”, it’s impossible to ditch that internal voice of insecurity that tells you he may mean that today, but what about next week, next month, or whenever the goalposts are perceived to have moved?
It’s not that long ago since we were in the midst of an appalling recession, when our national well-being took a serious hammering. Our consumer confidence was on the floor, but so, too, was our national sense of self. Now it’s coming at us from outside. It’s the simple thing, isn’t it, of having a neighbour who appears not to care less about how you are affected by their actions.
That this all happened as we appeared to be mending fences with Britain, following our ‘difficult history’ over centuries, adds complications and emotions to a now toxic mix.
Am I the only one who grates my teeth as I hear an upper class English Brexiteer accent? No matter what they are saying, what I am hearing is: “We are superior, we are chosen; your destiny or suffering is of no consequence to me.”
Is this my post-colonial, small-minded insecurity?
But the British, too, are suffering. A poll of more than 2,000 people, carried out by Britain Thinks, found that a significant majority of the public are bored and confused by the Brexit process. The least surprising thing was that they had very little trust in politicians to get it sorted. Almost two-thirds of them believed that Brexit anxiety was bad for people’s mental health, not to mention the emotional strain on the millions of EU nationals who live in the UK.
One of the focus group participants in the research said of Theresa May: “You can admire her suffering such ritual humiliation: It’s almost superhuman.”
No matter what your judgement of the British prime minister and her approach, it is hard to look on as someone just keeps going in the face of such gruelling circumstances; to have a human being so publicly battered for such a long period of time.
Of course, some of us are more vulnerable than others. This week, the Lancet medical journal website posted an article by Siobhan O’Neill, professor of Mental Health Services, Ulster University, under the headline ‘Brexit and Northern Ireland: leaders must consider the mental health of the population’.
Prof O’Neill said the stakes there are higher than elsewhere and the tension is palpable.
“Although Brexit cannot itself cause mental illness, it has the potential to create conditions under which the vulnerable will become ill and it will cause much suffering,” she said.
Brexit certainly ticks all the boxes on the suffering front. None of us is immune and the mental health effects are real. Right now, there is no end in sight.