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!

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Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

British drivers living in Spain are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the lack of solutions two weeks after they were told their UK licences were no longer valid, with the latest update from the UK Embassy suggesting it could still take "weeks" to reach a deal. 

Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Spain who are currently in limbo, unable to drive in Spain until they either get a Spanish driving licence or a deal is finally reached between Spanish and UK authorities for the mutual exchange of licences post-Brexit.

Since May 1st 2022, drivers who’ve been residents in Spain for more than six months and who weren’t able to exchange their UK licences for Spanish ones cannot drive in Spain.

There are no official stats on how many Britons of the 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022 are affected; according to the UK Embassy the “majority exchanged” as advised.

But judging by the amount of negative comments the last two updates from the British Embassy in Madrid have received, hundreds if not thousands are stuck without being able to drive in Spain.  

May 12th’s video message by Ambassador Hugh Elliott left many unhappy with the fact that the forecast for a possible licence exchange agreement will be in the “coming weeks”, when two weeks earlier Elliott had spoken of “rapidly accelerating talks”. 

Dozens of angry responses spoke of the “shocking” and “absolutely ridiculous” holdup in negotiations that have been ongoing for more than at least a year and a half, and which the UK Embassy has put down to the fact that Spain is asking the British government to give them access to DVLA driver data such as road offences, something “not requested by other EU Member States”.

Numerous Britons have explained the setbacks not being able to drive in Spain are causing them, from losing their independence to struggling to go to work, the hospital or the supermarket, especially those in rural areas with little public transport.  

“I know personally from all the messages you’ve sent in, just how incredibly disruptive all of this is for many of you,” Elliott said in response. 

“If you are struggling to get around you may find additional advice or support from your local town hall, or charities or community groups in your area and the Support in Spain website is another very useful source of organisations that can provide general support to residents.

“And if your inability to drive is putting you in a very vulnerable situation, you can always contact your nearest consulate for advice.”

There continue to be disparaging opinions in the British community in Spain over whether any pity should be felt for UK licence holders stuck without driving, as many argue they had enough time to register intent to exchange their licences, whilst others clarify that their particular set of circumstances, such as arriving after the December 2020 ‘intent to exchange’ deadline, made this impossible. 

OPINION: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel for drivers whose UK licences aren’t valid anymore in Spain or soon won’t be?

“The agreement we’re working towards now will enable UK licence holders, whenever they arrived in Spain or arrive in the future, to exchange their UK licence for a Spanish one without needing to take a practical or a theory test,” Elliott said on Thursday May 12th of the deal they are “fully committed” to achieve.

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get a Spanish driving licence?

And yet it’s hard for anyone to rest their hopes on this necessarily happening – sooner or later or ever – in part because the embassy advice for those with UK licences for whom it’s imperative to continue driving in Spain is that they should take steps to get their Spanish licence now, while acknowledging that in some places there are “long delays for lessons” and getting your Spanish licence “doesn’t happen overnight”.

READ ALSO: What now for UK licence holders in Spain?