How Brexit is fuelling stress and anxiety for vulnerable Brits in Europe

For many of the 1.2 million Brits living in the EU, as well as the 3 million EU citizens in the UK, a no-deal Brexit threatens a spate of life-changing repercussions. And the process is taking a toll on people's mental health.

How Brexit is fuelling stress and anxiety for vulnerable Brits in Europe
Photo: DepositPhotos

“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.

“Keeping people in limbo for over 900 days is abuse,” she added, referring to the time that has passed since the shock referendum result.

In a September 2018 survey of 300 Brits in the EU, conducted by Brexpats Hear Our Voice, 284 respondents said they were suffering from stress or anxiety.

More than two thirds said they had suffered financial losses because of the devaluation of sterling; more than half of those surveyed responded that they now faced strained relations with family or friends and find themselves distracted from work and day-to-day activities. At least a third of respondents said they had trouble sleeping since the referendum.

Facebook groups like Brexpats Hear Our Voice, Remain in France Together, or British in Europe's country chapters often serve as the only support groups for Brits living in the EU and experiencing the in-limbo effects Brexit is having on their lives. 

There are no official figures about the impact Brexit is having on the mental health of some of the most vulnerable British citizens living in the EU. Most people The Local has interviewed recently estimate that “thousands” of Brits across the EU are experiencing extensive stress, anxiety and depression linked to the uncertainty about their futures.

In Limbo Too: Brexit Testimonies from UK Citizens in the EU. Photo: Clarissa Killwick. 

It isn’t just Brits in the EU either.

There are several groups of EU citizens particularly vulnerable to Brexit in the UK. The Roma community, for example, who are mainly itinerant; those sectioned under the Psychiatry Act; EU citizens who moved to the UK and have expired documents. These are just three examples of groups of EU citizens particularly vulnerable to Brexit, according to the chair of campaign group the3million, Nicholas Hatton.

Widows are also particularly prone to Brexit depression, French Senator Olivier Cadic told The Local in a recent interview.

READ ALSO: 'The rights of 5 million people should never have been up for negotiation': chair of the3million

The Existential Academy, a UK-based volunteer company that focuses on psychotherapy and counselling, even has a dedicated outreach program called the ‘Emotional support service for Europeans’. “The Existential Academy in association with the Society of Psychotherapists provides an emotional support service for EU citizens resident in the UK and whose mental health has been adversely impacted by the uncertainty and emotional upheaval caused,” says the project’s website.

In Limbo and In Limbo Too, authored by Elena Ramigi, are a collection of testimonies of EU citizens in the UK and Brits in the EU respectively. Both shed light on the plight that many in those demographics are facing. 

Those books relied on people being able to express their grief, anxiety and stress in public. “Having been involved in the book, I know that there are many vulnerable people who were too frightened or didn't feel well enough to make a contribution to the book,” Clarissa Killwick, who was involved in the research, told The Local.

“The loss of our home is less worrisome than Brexit”

When Denise Abel and her husband moved to Italy in 2012, they didn’t expect to end up living in subsidized 40 square-metre emergency housing. But after an earthquake destroyed their host village of San Pellegrino di Norcia in central Italy, in October 2016, that is what happened. Their home was turned into rubble.

“We have been re-homed four times since the earthquake,” Denise told The Local. 

The stone house Denise, 62, and her husband Richard, 64, purchased and restored in Umbria was razed to the ground in what was the most powerful earthquake in Italy for more than three decades. 

Amazingly, neither incurred serious injuries. Despite the strength of the earthquake, nobody was killed, even if the old historic centre of Norcia and the surrounding areas, where Denise and Richard owned a home, were largely destroyed.

Denise Abel and husband Richard's former home in San Pellegrino di Norcia before October 2016…

…and the rubble after the earthquake. Photo: Denise Abel. 

Suddenly displaced, the couple spent a week with friends, then moved to another nearby town for two months, before buying a caravan and returning to their destroyed adopted hometown. Shortly before Christmas 2016, Denise and her husband were re-sheltered in one of 600 temporary homes built by the Italian government to accommodate earthquake victims.

READ ALSO: Italy 'on its knees' after biggest earthquake in 30 years

Besides the trauma of being struck by such a natural disaster, Denise has had to contend with the added uncertainty of being a Brit in Europe. “The loss of our home, devastating though it was, is far less worrisome than the potential consequences of Brexit. 900 days of uncertainty takes a toll,” Denise told The Local. 

“The anxiety around Brexit is huge for me”

Anxiety and stress have become mainstays for many Brits in Europe watching the Brexit process unfold. There is hardly any light at the end of the tunnel for thousands, if not millions, of vulnerable Brits now trapped between a rock and a hard place. Brexit threatens EU-based Britons’ healthcare, their access to work and education, the lives of their children, and much more.

Research conducted by advocacy and support group Brexpats Hear Our Voice also highlights how Brexit is taking its toll on the morale and psyche of many Brits in Europe.

In many cases, women are the most disproportionately affected demographic – single mothers with children, for example.

“I am happy to share my story because the anxiety around Brexit is huge for me,” says Joanna, a single mother of five children surveyed by BHOV, whose name has been changed to respect her wishes. “No German partner, no German job, reliant on social money,” adds Joanna, outlining her circumstances.

Two of Joanna’s children have special needs. In 2012, Joanna and her partner separated; in 2013 she gave up her job to look after her two autistic boys full time.

“My children have good schools and therapists and luckily the German system allows me to be home with them. But I honestly don't know how we will be if we have to leave,” she says, adding that any move would uproot her children and entail severe financial difficulties.

READ ALSO: What you should know about the Brexit deal if you're British in Germany

READ ALSO: 'They're fleeing Brexit': More Brits moving to Germany despite uncertainty

Helen (again, name changed) has been in France since 2002. She has her own concerns about how her career could be derailed by the loss of freedom of movement, but she is equally concerned about some of her most vulnerable acquaintances.

“I know one person, for example, who is mentally unstable and unable to deal with his affairs. And lots of pensioners and 'just getting by' families who definitely don't meet income requirements and in some cases are on French benefits or at least income top ups,” says Helen in BHOV’s study.

For many elderly British citizens living in the EU, concerns revolve around access to healthcare. “I have three 'pre-existing' conditions – lymphoma (eleven years in remission); atrial fibrillation and tachycardia; COPD, asthma, bronchiectasis, and emphysema. My medication costs are +/- €300 a month,” Simon, 67, told BHOV’s researchers.

Simon says a no-deal Brexit would force him to return to the UK, as the costs of health insurance are unaffordable – between 12,000 and 23,000 GBP per ear.

READ ALSO: British in Italy plan emergency meeting as prospect of no-deal Brexit looms again

“Should there be no agreement, we will have no choice but to sell our house here and return to the UK, where my medical costs will be borne by the NHS exactly as they are now,” added Simon.

“We won’t be entitled to healthcare under a no-deal scenario.”

For Denise Abel in Italy, the future is uncertain. 

“At the moment we are eligible for reconstruction funds, which are dependent on us being residents in Norcia. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, we would no longer be eligible,” she told The Local.

While Italian authorities are unlikely to evict an elderly British couple from their subsidised temporary accommodation, technically they could if Brits in Italy become ‘clandestini’, paperless migrants, after March 29th, 2019. Brits are set to become illegal migrants if the UK exits the EU without a deal, according to grassroots campaign group British in Europe.

The temporary, government-provided accommodation in which Denise and her husband Richard now live. 

Denise and her husband are both on daily medication, another cause for anxiety looking ahead. “We won’t be entitled to healthcare under a no-deal scenario. Our S1 ([EU health insurance scheme] depends on getting the deal through,” says Denise. Local doctors will only give prescriptions for a single month ahead.

This leaves Denise and her husband Richard in a difficult situation, whereby their best option, should a no-deal unfold, would be to try and obtain a couple of post-dated prescriptions from their doctor on March 28th, 2019 – the latest possible date for such a medical contingency plan.

It isn’t just medical concerns that couples like Denise and Richard have. Denise’s husband is an engineer who works with waste oil. “He’s losing work because of the uncertainty,” Denise told The Local: employers are simply unable to confirm contracts for Richard without knowing what his future legal status will be.

Just over 100 days before the expiration of Article 50, Brits in Europe still don’t know whether they will be left in a residential no-man’s land after March 29th next year.

READ MORE: Merkel still has 'hope' for an orderly Brexit

Member comments

  1. We often see quoted the number of 5,2 million (1,2 + 3 million) citizens affected. This leads those with (no adverse effects on their lives) as being “only” 5,2 million.

    In reality 5,2 is the number of registered EU citizens who are displaced following Brexit. As every registered citizen I know in this position has a spouse and family that would not be registered the 5,2 is misleading. When you add (unregistered) spouse, children and parents it is therefore not unreasonable to multiply this figure by 3 or 4 to arrive at the true number of lives in limbo.

    A sobering thought that 17,4 million people in the UK voted to put the lives of 18,2 million other people’s lives into turmoil for a nefarious set of undeliverables.

  2. Correction 5,2 should have been 4,2 and 18,2 should have been 14,7 based on average of 3,5 and 16,8 based on average of 4 – too much sherry in the trifle I guess!

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.