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Researchers from the Health Economics group of the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences (NDPCHS) and Bocconi University, Italy, found that in the two years after Brexit, mental health in the UK worsened compared to trend, especially among younger men, the highly educated and natives living in “Remain” areas.

Photo of Brexit protesters with banners

A study led by senior researchers at NDPCHS analysed changes in mental health in the UK that occurred as a result of the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the EU (Brexit).

On 23 June 2016 the UK held a referendum to decide whether to remain in the European Union (EU) or not. Although the margins were tight, opinion polls taken in the weeks leading up to the referendum generally predicted a win for the “Remain” side. However, contrary to pollsters’ predictions, 51.9% of the British voters decided that the UK should leave the European Union (EU). Brexit was not fully implemented until four years after the referendum, on 31 January 2020, bringing economic and social uncertainty in the society. Previous studies found that Brexit produced higher financial and job uncertainty, higher risk of recession and lower potential economic growth, as well as higher discrimination and hate crimes. However, the consequences of Brexit on health were not fully understood especially in the mid-long term. Higher economic and social uncertainty produced by Brexit could have deteriorated the mental health and well-being in the UK population. Previous studies focused in the short term effects of Brexit and found an overall decline in subjective well-being in the months following the referendum (Powdthave et al (2019), Kavetsos et al (2018)).

The study uses the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), a panel data survey consisting of 40,000 households from the UK, and several measures of mental health in this study compared levels of mental health and well-being around the years 2014-2018. That is, two years before and after the Brexit referendum. The first measure of mental health was derived from an index of questions related to mental health. The selected questions asked the individuals on the frequency over the past weeks that emotional problems (such as feeling depressed or anxious) led them to accomplish less and work less carefully, and the frequency over the past weeks that they felt calm and peaceful, downhearted or depressed. The second measure of mental health was obtained from the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) in which individuals respond to 12 questions on the frequency over the last few weeks that they: have been able to concentrate, have lost sleep due to worries, have felt like they played a useful role, have been able to make decisions, among others.

The current study contributes to the existing literature on the consequences of Brexit by showing that, on average, mental health and mental functioning in Great Britain declined in the two years following the referendum. In particular, young adults (aged 31–46), men, natives, and highly educated individuals, living in areas where more than 50% of the voters were in favour of remaining in the EU, were significantly more affected by the results of the referendum than any other groups. The findings indicate an overall deterioration in mental health in the two years after the referendum of 2016. These findings remained significant even after controlling for demographic and regional characteristics. The study adds to the existing literature by documenting that the decline in mental health seems to be long lasting and heterogeneous across regions and specific socio-demographic profiles.

These findings have important implications for policy and mental health care services since it allows them to identify the people who are most affected by Brexit in terms of mental health needs. Furthermore, it provides further evidence on the decline in average mental health as a consequence of the Brexit referendum and the economic uncertainty associated with it and also shows that its effects are long-lasting in the population.

You can view the article here: Diverging mental health after Brexit: Evidence from a longitudinal survey - ScienceDirect

Joan Madia, Catia Nicodemo, Nicolo’ Cavalli

Opinions expressed are those of the author/s and not of the University of Oxford. Readers' comments will be moderated - see our guidelines for further information.

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