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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

‘So stressful’: How Italy-UK driving licence fiasco threatens couple’s Tuscan dream

One couple from Manchester found the home of their Tuscan retirement dreams, but the stalemate over a UK-Italy driving licence agreement is throwing their future into question.

'So stressful': How Italy-UK driving licence fiasco threatens couple's Tuscan dream

Iain and Lynn Gosling lived and worked all their lives in and around Manchester – at a bank, where they met, then in various schools – but had always dreamed of retiring in Tuscany.

In 2018, with the Brexit clock ticking, they decided to take the plunge, and after a lengthy Place in the Sun-style hunt, they finally found their ideal home.

The podere (farmhouse) they chose just outside the town of Pomerance, in the province of Pisa, checked all their boxes: it had an olive grove, was close enough to the beach, had a friendly local community, and the town was particularly invested in green energy, sourcing most of its power from renewables.

Most importantly, it was just over an hour’s drive from Pisa airport, meaning they could regularly go back and visit family in the UK.

READ ALSO: ‘We bought the cheapest house in Piedmont and live mortgage free’

“We’d holidayed in Tuscany for 20 years, and the views and everything were even better than where we’d been holidaying. So we kind of thought we struck gold really,” says Lynn.

“When we saw it, we just knew, and when we went into the town it was such a good, welcoming feeling.”

Iain and Lynn's podere in Pomerance.

Iain and Lynn’s podere in Pomerance. Source: Iain Gosling.

The couple began building a new life, learning Italian and befriending local residents. They were careful to take the necessary steps to secure their future in Italy before the Brexit deadline, registering with the town hall and later obtaining carta di soggiorno residency cards.

But – like many other British nationals in Italy – the pair didn’t anticipate that almost two years on from Brexit, negotiations for a reciprocal driving licence agreement between the two countries would have stalled. It’s an ongoing state of limbo that threatens to make their retirement dream unworkable.

While with hindsight the pair would have exchanged their driving licences before the Brexit deadline, they believed a deal would soon be reached – especially as the UK allows EU licence-holders to drive with almost no restrictions.

“If we cannot drive in the short term, I’m sure we can find a way round it somehow,” says Iain. “Longer term? No, not really.”

READ ALSO: Do you have to take Italy’s driving test in Italian?

A 12-month grace period granted in 2021 is due to expire in January unless an agreement is reached, forcing UK drivers to choose between taking an Italian driving exam that could well turn out to be unnecessary, or gambling on a last-minute deal that risks leaving them without a valid licence if it doesn’t materialise.

For Iain and Lynn, who live a four-minute drive from the town on hilly country roads without access to public transport or pavements, it doesn’t feel like much of a choice.

“I’d be absolutely lost without driving,” says Lynn, who judges that without a car the couple would have to make daily hour-long round walks into town to buy basic necessities.

They decided that Iain would take the exam so that at least one of them would still be able to drive in the absence of a deal, and booked his theory test for November to give him time to prepare.

As a minimum of 32 days must pass between passing the theory test and sitting the practical exam, he’ll only just secure his Italian licence in time in the event that there’s no agreement – if he manages to pass both on the first go.

READ ALSO: Some of the best learner sites for taking your Italian driving test

Iain and Lynn outside their Tuscan farmhouse.

Iain and Lynn outside their Tuscan farmhouse. Source: Iain Gosling.

“So – no pressure on the theory test,” says Iain, who plans to fly back early from Christmas holidays in the UK to sit his practical exam if he succeeds in passing the former.

The couple know they could have begun the process earlier. But the test requires answering the same theory questions as a native Italian speaker and a taking mandatory six hours of practical lessons, and it isn’t cheap – Iain and Lynn estimate the total cost to be just under €1,000.

What’s more, those who pass an Italian driving test are classed as new drivers (neopatentati) for three years, which comes with a range of restrictions on speed limits and vehicle engine size, and a zero tolerance policy on alcohol.

READ ALSO: Driving licences: Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement?

All this has made taking the test a last resort for people who believed the UK and Italian governments would have reached an agreement by this point – or have at least issued clear guidance as to what action UK licence-holders should take.

The UK’s ambassador to Italy stresses that negotiations continue – though has encouraged British residents to book an Italian driving test.

A spokesperson for the British Embassy in Rome told The Local in October: “Since August we have continued and intensified further our work with our Italian colleagues and have made progress towards our shared objective.”

Lynn says: “Over the last six months it was very optimistic, everything we were hearing. It’s just in the past two months that we’ve thought, well, wait a minute.”

If Iain doesn’t manage to pass the test before the deadline and no deal is reached, “we are stuck,” he says.

“This situation is so stressful.”

READ ALSO: How UK drivers in Italy face new problems after passing Italian driving test

The couple fear that without the ability to drive, their current lifestyle would be unsustainable.

“You wake up thinking about it, and you go to bed thinking about it,” says Lynn. “Anxiety, that’s how it makes you feel.”

“Someone will turn around and say, well why didn’t you take your driving tests 12 months ago so you’re not in this situation?” says Iain. “But if all the signs were encouraging from the ambassador, we thought well OK, we can keep our benefits here and we don’t want to lose them.”

While the embassy insists that negotiating the agreement is its top priority, Iain worries that the recent political upheaval in both the UK and Italy has pushed the issue on to the back burner.

“We have no choice but to have faith in our British representatives to deliver and soon too, because the previous regulation extension was far too late,” Iain says. “We need to know now so we can make definite plans and contingencies.”

Despite the stress, Iain and Lynn are determined to do all they can to find a way to remain in Pomerance, where they say they’ve been embraced by local residents and have become good friends with their Italian neighbours who occupy the other half of their semi-detached property.

“We don’t want to give this up,” says Iain. “We love it here and we want to stay.”

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