Dwindling food supplies. The prime minister threatening another general election if there’s a vote of no confidence in his government. The prospect of day-long traffic jams at Dover.
Whether you’re a Remainer or a Leaver, these are disruptive times, and the media is covering every single aspect of it.
It’s enough to drive people to breaking point. As the October 31 deadline approaches and uncertainty about what exactly will happen and what that means for every one of us grows, every utterance and action is being dissected in newspapers and on 24-hour rolling news channels. And more and more of us are saying it’s affecting our mental health.
In March, four in ten adults said Brexit made them feel powerless, angry and worried. In April, a third of Britons said that Brexit had negatively affected their mental health. One in eight of us reported problems with our sleep pegged to our protracted extrication from the European Union, and one in five of us say the whole process has caused high levels of stress. And since then we’ve had a change of prime minister, the collapse of negotiations, the overhaul of a government and a parliament now in summer recess trying to recharge their own batteries for the herculean task ahead. Did we mention there are 80 days to Brexit?
“From my experience, it’s getting worse and worse,” says Louise Tyler, Manchester-based counsellor and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). “There are three main emotions people are feeling: one is this overwhelming sense of powerlessness. That’s growing. The general public is completely voiceless, ever since the initial referendum,” she says.
We have paid “nowhere near enough” attention to the problem of stress caused by Brexit and the surrounding media coverage, reckons Antonis Kousoulis, director of the UK charity Mental Health Foundation. “To an extent I understand such a big political issue would consume most of the energy of politicians and other groups, but at the same time most people in political circles have not realised the effect this prolonged period of uncertainty has over people.”
Tyler’s clients report feeling lost amidst the uncertainty of what will happen next. “For some people it’s personal uncertainty about their jobs or businesses or families, either here or abroad,” she says. “For others it’s this existential uncertainty – no one really knows what the future is going to hold, especially with a no-deal Brexit.”
The third is anger. “I’m seeing a lot of very angry people,” says Tyler – on both sides. Remainers are angry that they’re about to be taken out of the European Union with no deal despite parliament appearing to oppose it. Leavers are frustrated that it’s taking so long. Neither side is happy – and media coverage seems to be pitting both against each other. “I often advise clients to be really careful about the media they’re engaging with and to understand the media’s role is often to whip up fear and anxiety,” explains Tyler.
It’s not just the screaming headlines of the Daily Mail and Daily Express that we should be worried about. Everything is becoming so doom-laden – rightly, given the gravity of the situation we’re in, around half the population would reckon – that it’s causing a wider malaise. “It has become slightly toxic in this area, I think,” says Tyler. “I advise clients, if they’re really feeling it, to stop watching rolling news and to be really careful about the media they consume. And if necessary, if they’re really feeling awful about it, to take a media break and not look at it for a while.”
At a conference in Vienna in September 2018, European Union justice commissioner Vera Jourova warned that “media can build the culture of dialogue or sow divisions, spread disinformation and encourage exclusion.” Jessica Buxbaum, the author of a chapter in the book Do They Mean Us?’ about the coverage of Brexit in the press, says: “The tone of media coverage on Brexit is incredibly divisive and polarising. The general framing of Brexit news (especially in regards to more conservative, anti-EU newspapers such as the Daily Mail) is one drenched in fear and scaremongering. This, in turn, creates a society that is more anxious and on edge.”
Robert Gordon University researcher Piotr Teodorowski has run focus groups with European Union nationals living in Scotland in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. “We were surprised at the level of anxiety,” he says. “People spoke about rhetoric in the media, and they felt that for years the media was speaking for Brexit and there was no one really to hear from EU citizens.”
One of the participants in Teodorowski’s focus groups said the level of discourse in the press made them feel like “a bag of potatoes that you can throw somewhere”. Another said they set a curfew on watching TV at home because the news coverage was too much for them. A third explained how they’d changed the route they travelled to work so they didn’t have to see the newspaper headlines in shops, because they were giving them anxiety. “You can see how the way things are discussed in the media impacts the way people feel,” says Teodorowski.
Kousoulis is more sanguine. “For me the media is the media,” he says. “The way they operate, they get more engagement for stories that cover the more distressing elements of Brexit.”
However, the Mental Health Foundation has raised concerns with the press about the use of mental health terminology to describe the Brexit process. “Saying there has been a ‘mental breakdown over Brexit’ or ‘Brexit madness’ is certainly something we should not encourage,” he says.
The fear-riddled headlines are triggering anxiety in many – which is an evolutionary response to stress. “We tend to go into this kind of fight or flight response when we perceive danger might be around the corner,” says Tyler. “That’s perfectly healthy if the danger is actually a life-threatening situation, but on the whole this will not actually be life-threatening.”
So how are we meant to cope with the fear and anxiety that’s permeating all parts of society? The easiest and most drastic answer is to switch off. Delete your news apps, turn off the TV, and stay away from newspapers. If you’re feeling particularly anxious, you might want to seek professional help from your GP or a therapist.
The other thing is to avoid social media – entirely. “It gives a voice to people with such extremist views and they’re not the views of the general population,” advises Tyler. “The racism and xenophobia that is coming out are the minority of the population but they have such a strong voice on social media that I’d tell people to avoid social media if they’re feeling particularly anxious.”
And most vitally, it’s crucial – as media headlines stress the vast gulf between both sides on the Brexit debate – to keep some perspective. “It’s important to remember what we share and what we have in common as opposed to what divides us,” says Kousoulis.
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