The existential and emotional impact of Brexit

                             This article was written by Emmy van Deurzen

Each day brings us new information about the consequences that leaving the EU will visit upon us from April 2019, when we plan to cut off from our trusted partners.

From my perspective it seems as though our leaders appear to live in a daze of self-deception and denial, exhibiting a strange determination to continue burning bridges that we have spent many decades constructing and that are essential to our connectivity and survival. Sometimes it almost seems as if we are on trial, as if a social experiment is being rolled out to test our personal resilience and sanity.

Of course we all respond differently to the situation. Some are carrying on with their lives as if nothing has happened and all is normal. Some are still in shock and can’t quite believe this is happening. Some are tearing out our hair in despair. It all seems so counter intuitive and nonsensical, and few of us are exempt from these reactions.

In one way or another the spectre of Brexit is affecting us.

Some weeks ago, Dr. Helen De Cruz and myself did a short survey of 1300 UK citizens, who had voted to remain in the EU. Their responses (some of which you can see in the word-cloud above) show clearly how they have been feeling since the referendum.

Theirs are strong and deep emotions. They feel devastated, angry, depressed, betrayed and ashamed, nearly two years after the referendum.

This is intense and intimate stuff. What has happened to them is personal. They feel their lives have been totally changed by what has happened. The vote has struck at the core of their identity and continues to dominate their everyday experience.

However we should also remember that, in addition to the 16 million who voted to stay, there were at least 5 million potential voters who were disenfranchised from the vote and who would have been likely to vote remain as well.

The 3.5 million EU citizens who are settled in the UK and the UK citizens who have been resident abroad for more than fifteen years have been treated as second class citizens and were not allowed to participate in a referendum that was vital to them.

Many of them feel very strongly about this as their personal circumstances are directly touched by this vote, and some of these people have had their lives totally altered or brought into disarray by a situation they had no say in.

As a psychotherapist I have worked with many people in this position and some of them are truly devastated because they have nowhere to turn. Not everyone can obtain settled status and many people have no home or family in their country of origin. They are British to all intents and purposes and should have been offered the sanctuary of dual nationality straight away. They feel as if they have lost their identity and their human rights.

Of course, there are some in the group of EU citizens who are much more casual about the situation, especially those who are in the country on a temporary contract, while others have now been able to make different arrangements. Some are tied to the country by marriage or professionally and some have obtained British citizenship.

But we also know that hundreds of thousands are so deeply hurt and upset that they have either already left the UK or are planning to do so after Brexit.

Because of this the Existential Academy (a community interest company) created the Emotional Support Service for Europeans (ESSE)in the UK, which provides prospective clients with up to ten sessions with a qualified therapist/psychologist who has chosen to volunteer their services.

One thing our work at the ESSE clinic has shown us is how great the need for people to connect to others in a similar situation. People who withdraw and stop talking to others about the situation they find themselves in get worse very quickly.

When they re-engage and realize they are taken seriously and can do something about their plight things improve immediately. In this way working with pro-European groups has been particularly beneficial for many. Being sucked into a vortex of gloom and doom is not good for any of us, and it is vital to remain positive, constructive and purposeful.

The ESSE is a free service provided via phone and online. It is run and supervised by registered existential therapists and aims to provide support to those whose mental health has been adversely affected by the current climate of unrest and uncertainty.

For more information about this service, including how to volunteer as a therapist, please visit or email

  • Emmy van Deurzen is a philosopher, psychologist and existential therapist with sixteen books to her name. She is the principal of a postgraduate College of higher education, in partnership with Middlesex University, with whom she is a professor of psychology and psychotherapy.

    She is Vice Chair of New Europeans and Founder Chair of Voices for Europe. She has spoken at a dozen rallies, marches and protests all over the country. She is known on Twitter as @emmyzen