Political change and mental health

21st Mar 2019
Influencing policy

This content discusses anxiety and discrimination or discriminatory violence (such as homophobia, racism, sexism and ableism), which some people may find triggering.

Political uncertainty can be challenging, regardless of our beliefs or where we might fall on the political spectrum.

Political change can affect us in different ways and, for many of us, transition of political powers and uncertainty may cause stress and anxiety about the future of our country.

Major political and economic fluctuations, such as Brexit, may also have unexpected consequences on the health of an entire population, even before they directly affect someone’s employment, business or immigration status.[1] In public health, some similarities have been identified between the 2016 US presidential vote and the referendum on Britain’s place in the European Union, with predicted effects on global public health.

Racism and the health impact on minorities

Increased xenophobia and racism will harm public health, indicatively through reduced openness to refugees and increased use of military forces.[2] For example, soon after the referendum, the UK saw a spike in hate crimes.[3]

We need to be mindful that vulnerable and marginalised groups in our society feel at risk of losing many individual human rights gained under EU law: the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will not be part of domestic UK legislation after the country leaves the EU. This means that the mental health of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic communities might seriously be undermined.[4]

Major political transitions often lead to a time of limited economic growth, in which there are concerns that funds for healthcare and the social determinants of health will decrease.

Uncertainty and mental health

It’s been over two years since 52% of voters in the UK EU Exit Referendum chose to leave the European Union, releasing a wave of uncertainty on whether the UK will negotiate a deal or leave the EU without one. This uncertainty can affect our mental health.

Initial studies (up to autumn 2017) have shown a degree of decrease of subjective well-being following post-Brexit elections for those with very negative attitudes towards the EU. A short-term increase in subjective well-being was followed by significant decreases, which may be linked to distress or unmet expectations of a “hard(er)” Brexit’.[5]

In addition, a recent study in the UK highlighted that uncertainty induced by the Brexit referendum may have influenced the increasing rate of antidepressant prescribing (in contrast to physical health medication), however the researchers concluded that results may also be impacted by other external factors.[6]

Looking at society more widely, most importantly, the messages that we can take from such studies, are how we can work on appropriate policy change.

First, policies and availability of services supporting mental health should be intensified in periods of uncertainty. Secondly, the Brexit vote might have consequences beyond the political and financial changes in trade, immigration or the economy, influencing the psychological well-being of individuals. However, discussion of the impact on the population health and well-being has been limited so far.

Stress and global events

We need to remember that we are not immune to political change and social uncertainty. Evidence from the big Stress in America™ survey (ran by the American Psychological Association in 2016) revealed that 66% of people saw the future of their nation as a significant source of stress, while 57% felt stressed by the current political climate following the presidential elections.[7]

The survey we ran at the Mental Health Foundation in 2018 of over 1800 parents revealed that almost 4 in 10 parents (39%) were concerned that their children are becoming more anxious about world and national events.[8] For example, almost a quarter of parents (23%) indicated their children were anxious about the threat of nuclear war and a third of parents (33%) thought their children were anxious about Donald Trump’s presidency. Of those whose children were anxious, 6 in 10 (61%) had noticed their children starting to ask a lot more questions and a quarter (24%) had noticed their children seeking reassurance.

Surveys like these support the fact that situations like Brexit often place us in collectively stressful circumstances. Symptoms of stress can vary from person to person, but often include a combination of emotional (powerlessness, anger, worry, tension, irritability) and physical (headaches, insomnia, stomach problems) reactions. People experience stress in very different ways, and deal with it each in a unique manner.

Keen to support people to take control of their mental health in challenging times like this, we are publishing some recommendations today on how to maintain healthy levels of stress in circumstances of political change.

We are also announcing today that we are working with Public Health Wales to develop a framework that will support the mental health and well-being of farmers in the face of the uncertainties around Brexit. Studies suggest that farmers already experience higher levels of stress and anxiety due to worries about family, finances, farming practices and processes.

If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.

  1. Dolan SVGKP. Greasy Roads: The Impact of Bad Financial News on Road Traffic Accidents. Risk Anal. 2014;34:556-566. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.12123
  2. Macgregor-Bowles I, Bowles DC. Trump, Brexit, Right-wing Anti-globalisation, and An Uncertain Future for Public Health. 2017;4(2):139-148. doi:10.3934/publichealth.2017.2.139
  3. Devine, Daniel. The UK Referendum on Membership of the European Union as a Trigger Event for Hate Crimes. 2018;84:487-492. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3118190
  4. Heald A, Vida B, Bhugra D. Brexit, the Leave campaign, and mental health of ethnic minority communities. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2018;5(2):110. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30018-X
  5. CEP Discussion Paper No 1586 December 2018 The Effect of the Brexit Referendum Result on Subjective Well-being Georgios Kavetsos Ichiro Kawachi Ilias Kyriopoulos Sotiris Vandoros. 2018;(1586).
  6. Vandoros S, Avendano M, Kawachi I. The EU referendum and mental health in the short term: a natural experiment using antidepressant prescriptions in England. J Epidemiol Community Heal Epub. 2018;0:1-8. doi:10.1136/jech-2018-210637
  7. APA. APA stress in America survey. 2016. http://ar2016.apa.org/stress-in-america/.
  8. 4 in 10 British parents indicate children are anxious about threat of terrorism | Mental Health Foundation. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/4-10-british-parents-indicate-child.... Accessed March 12, 2019.

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