Brexistential Crisis: How philosophical psychotherapy is helping EU citizens cope with Brexit

31 October 2018

“The human condition makes us all insecure to some extent so we spend much of our lives securing ourselves in order to feel safe enough to build our lives and relationships, to work and to make it all go round,” Professor Emmy van Deurzen explained.

“But, when that is pulled away, you go into what we call an existential crisis which is that the meaning of life is suddenly ripped apart because the meaning of life is very much determined by the way in which we secure ourselves and how we connect up to the world. 

“Brexit is a severing of all those safe connections for people like EU citizens.”

I met Professor van Deurzen, a leading authority on existential psychotherapy – the practice of which she established in Britain after settling here from the Netherlands 41 years ago – in her therapy room at the Existential Academy in west London.

I was there to find out how Brexit has psychologically affected those Europeans who have made Britain their home.

For the past year, the academy, which offers courses in existential psychotherapy and was established by Professor van Deurzen in the 1990s, has been offering counselling to EU citizens suffering from what she calls “Brexit anxiety”.

Existential therapy is best-placed to help them, according to the 66-year-old academic, because it is a “philosophical form of psychotherapy” which is about “looking at life in the round and not just in a psychological way”.

“The emphasis is much more on helping a person to understand all the many layers of their lives,” she told me. “The more a person understands the different wires connecting them up to the world, the better they get at managing losing some of these, because in all of our lives we have small and bigger losses all the time. 

“If we’re very well connected up and we’re very fluid and dynamic with it, we can deal with it. But, when too much goes at the same time, all of us crash and that’s what’s not often acknowledged. People think that mental illness happens to the weak. Not so. It happens to people who have big traumas or haven’t had the help early on in life to connect themselves up properly.”

Because Professor van Deurzen’s existential approach to therapy focuses on how we find and create meaning in our lives and are impacted by inevitable external forces such as group, social, economic and political pressures, she immediately saw its relevance in helping those struggling to cope with the results of the EU referendum.

“It leads to an awareness of how new social change impacts specifically on people’s mental health,” she said, “and we became aware very early on of how the Brexit referendum had particularly affected EU citizens in the UK. Often overnight they felt disenfranchised and homeless.”

The Emotional Support Service for Europeans is currently supporting around 100 people with counselling online and over the phone. It was set-up by Professor van Deurzen as a response to her own feelings, and those of other Europeans, following the referendum.

“People always mention an intense sense of disappointment,” she told me. “That they felt safe and that they were equal and suddenly they are no longer treated as equal. You feel your voice doesn’t count and that your home isn’t safe. Suddenly you have become an undesirable, when you never thought of yourself in that way. You become a target of racism when you thought yourself equal. That is really scary, it makes you think about the world in a very different way.”

Professor van Deurzen said she knows of EU citizens who have been suicidal and many who have already left Britain. Acknowledging that some of those seeking support already have mental health difficulties, she said for others it has caused fresh anxiety.

“We help people think about how they can take back control, how they can find resources in their lives they may not have realised were there, and to not feel like a victim or a patient,” Professor van Deurzen said. “When people start doing something for other people in a similar position or join a political movement and start fighting, their mood improves and they start to feel that there is a future again. It’s that engagement. Every single person who has come to us for this service has complained of feeling totally isolated, completely alone, despondent, incapable of even considering a way out because the politics of it is so heavy.”

Many British citizens have also been psychologically shaken by Brexit, she said, adding: “You can’t take for granted that the values that are important to you will still be the values in place in this country in 10 years’ time – and then it becomes very personal and worrying”.

Despite this, she believes the existential crisis triggered by Brexit may be what Britain has needed.

“Many of us have woken up from our slumbers and become politically engaged in a way people in Britain have not been for a very long time and things won’t be the same,” she told me. “Something like this had to happen to this country and it’s doing a very good job of shaking people up and getting them to think anew about the real issues.

“That’s what we say to people – sometimes a crisis happens and that’s a wake-up call and it’s actually a necessary moment because that’s when you step up to the plate, you start looking instead of blinding yourself, you face reality and you become strong and start doing what you should have been doing a long time ago to avoid that crisis in the first place.”

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