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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

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”

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