Britain suffering ‘enormous stress’ over Brexit, psychologist warns

‘It has real consequences for people’s well-being and mental health,’ Professor says

Brexit has caused a mental trauma in Britain on the scale of a major war or a natural disaster, an expert on stress claims, leading to a sharp rise in the use of anti-depressants.

NUIG Professor of Psychology Brian Hughes says there is mounting empirical evidence that the Brexit process has caused "enormous stress" in Britain.

He points to a 13 per cent spike in prescriptions for anti-depressants in July 2016, the month following the referendum. Normally, anti-depressant use falls off during the summer months.

"While we may in Ireland laugh at the UK, it is very stressful for the people in the UK, it has real consequences for people's well-being and mental health. There are multiple major concerns you would have for a nation like the UK and its population," he said.


He also cites research carried out by the UK Mental Health Foundation in March this year which reveals that one person in 10 in Britain is having sleeping problems over Brexit, 20 per cent were reporting anxiety, a similar number were reporting family conflict over the issue and 59 per cent of Remainers reported feeling powerless as a consequence of the Brexit decision.

There was also a 50 per cent rise in hate crimes and racist incidents in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

“Racial abuse is a predictor of mental health problems especially for people who are already marginalised,” he said.

Prof Hughes likened Brexit to a war or natural disaster as an “unavoidable experience which affects everybody in the population. It represents a complete disruption of what had been normal.”

Professor Hughes specialises in the area of stress which occurs as a result of a disruption to the “homeostasis” - the equilibrium of life.

“There has been a complete disruption of what was ticking along for decades and the result is enormous stress,” he said.

Fight or flight

Prof Hughes will deliver a free public lecture on Thursday evening in NUI Galway on the psychology of Brexit. The event is hosted by the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI).

He believes that nations can, under stress, exhibit many of the characteristics of people in similar circumstances.

When faced with stress, individuals either exhibit the fight or flight approach or alternatively they freeze. Professor Hughes believes the inability of the British political classes to reach a decision on Brexit is a case in point where politicians freeze under the pressure of Brexit.

“When we are confronted with stress we often retreat into a freezing situation where we see every possible path forward as a risk,” he explained.

“When all of society freezes, it is very hard for British society to look around ansee what other countries are doing, because only Britain is in this situation.”

He also believes that a lot of the rancour of public discourse in the UK over Brexit is as a result of stress.

“When we suffer stress, we often rationalise our situation to remove all blame from ourselves,” he said.

“We see that in the Brexit situation as well. Everybody feels that they are in right and the other side are quite wrong, not just slightly wrong.

“Psychologists would look at Brexit in different ways. One way is the process of reasoning that people exhibit when they talk about Brexit. The big feature of that is self-justification. You see that anytime there is crisis or stress. People revert to self-justification,” he explained.

“Individuals are social in nature. Our very identity is bound up with our relationship with other people. Societies can react to stress by rationalising their experience and by learning to accept what happened or to blame somebody else for the problem, never to blame themselves.”Prof Hughes is a former President of the Psychological Society of Ireland and will present The Psychology of Brexit at 7pm at NUIG on Thursday, May 16th at the Arts Millennium Building, AM250 Colm O’Heocha Theatre.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times