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MENTAL HEALTH

‘I am not alone’ – How Brexit’s Facebook groups can be life-saving therapy for anxious Britons

The dozens of Facebook groups where Brits in Europe, as well as EU nationals in the UK, meet and discuss Brexit have become counseling hubs for citizens increasingly suffering from anxiety, panic attacks and depression because of uncertainty linked to Brexit.

They are forums for exchanging views, dissecting Brexit and sharing useful information for expat citizens.

But they are also key counseling hubs in the absence of more formal structures to tackle the impact Brexit is having on the mental health of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU.

With just over sixty days to go to Brexit, many Facebook groups that bring together expat nationals – Remain in France Together, Brexpats Hear Our Voice, Bremain in Spain or In Limbo – are filled with anxiety and uncertainty.

“Around the Christmas holidays a lot of people were posting about panic attacks, depression and anxiety,” Elena Remigi told The Local.

Remigi manages the online group In Limbo: Our Brexit Testimonies, which she founded in March 2017 as a “safe place” for EU citizens facing the UK's post-Brexit “hostile environment.” She has also published a book featuring those accounts.

“People are really afraid of being the next Windrush generation,” says Remigi. “Brexit is affecting their mental health,” she adds, emphasizing that the most vulnerable among the EU nationals in the UK often suffer the most: the disabled, those on benefits, or the hard to reach. 

Remigi's In Limbo book documents 150 testimonies of EU nationals living in the UK.

The sequel, In Limbo Too, – written in partnership with Debra Williams from citizens' rights group Brexpats Hear Our Voice – turned its focus to British nationals in Europe, with an equal number of testimonies.

Both books focused on vulnerable demographics: the elderly, the disabled, those with limited documents or for whom Brexit is off the radar and therefore harder to adapt to.

Remigi says it has happened on several occasions that participants in the 'In Limbo' Facebook group have made suicidal posts, citing Brexit as a cause.

In such cases Remigi and her colleagues advise the concerned to call the Samaritans suicide prevention hotline, to seek help from their doctor or to reach out to conventional counseling services. 

“When we see people distressed we have a duty to refer them to counseling,” Remigi told The Local.

Brexit is going to change the lives of many of the UK's approximately 3.6 million EU citizens, as well as the lives of the 1.2 million or so British citizens living in the EU. 

Besides concerns about how their future work and residency status could change, each of the so-called '5 million' (the estimated sum of British nationals in the EU and EU nationals in the UK) has their own Brexit fears.

These include the issues of pensions, the rights of their children, access to medicine and healthcare, the right to work and access education, meeting new income assessment criteria for residency, proving retrospective documentation and much more.

Hostile environment

The Emotional Support Service for Europeans (ESSE) at London's Existential Academy treats EU nationals for depression and problems linked to Brexit. Volunteer therapists at ESSE, a project started in 2017, have treated more than 60 EU nationals in the UK since it opened. 

In many cases, a patient is an EU citizen with a British spouse. “The EU spouse may feel that they suddenly don't belong and feel tensions if there are children involved,” Jo Molle, a volunteer therapist at ESSE, told The Local.

Molle says she has also “worked with people who have experienced a lot of discrimination.” The British therapist of Italian origin cites a case of an EU national who felt she had to leave her rural home for a British city because she no longer felt welcome in the village after the Brexit vote. 

The ESSE project at the Existential Academy is really a drop in the ocean in tackling Brexit-related mental health issues – there are only so many patients the centre can work with.

“The waiting list is very long,” Molle told The Local, adding that with increasing demand for therapy from EU nationals outside London, sessions are often conducted over the phone. 

Molle says online groups are also a key therapy tool in the Brexit landscape, especially for people who are cut off from traditional therapy forums.

“People who are isolated and have no way of getting the support they need find them really useful,” says Molle.

Brexpats Hear Our Voice is one such group for Brits in the EU.

“Our group, like many other similar ones, is a closed group. Therefore, members consider it a safe space where they can share their worries and give each support,” Clarissa Killwick, an admin moderator with advocacy, research and support group Brexpats Hear Our Voice, told The Local. 

“Outside that comfortable space I have seen disbelief, and worse, that Brexit can actually affect someone's mental health. The fact that it seems impossible for those not directly affected to understand, means that groups are a real lifeline to those feeling very isolated,” adds Killwick, a British teacher based in northern Italy. 

“I feel less alone”

Many group members confirmed to The Local that the support they find has helped them navigate a difficult stage in their lives.

“The like-minded group has helped me enormously, beyond mere words. It has enabled me to process the stages of grief that I feel as a marginalized Brit in Europe, to know that whatever emotion I am feeling or experiencing, that I am not alone,” Fiona Scott-Wilson, a Brit based in Italy and a member of the Brexpats Hear Our Voice group, told The Local. 

“I feel less alone being part of this group, knowing we are all going through tough times of uncertainty,” adds Kerrana McAvoy Clément, a Brit based in Brussels. 

The Facebook groups exist as campaigning tools for British in Europe, but they also serve as digital safe havens for Brits uncertain about their futures and the ground beneath them.

“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.

Referring to the time that has passed since the Brexit referendum result, she added: “Keeping people in limbo for over 900 days is abuse”. 

READ ALSO: How Brexit is fuelling stress and anxiety for vulnerable Brits in Europe

 

 

 

For members

BREXIT

Frustration grows as UK driving licence holders in Italy wait in limbo

British nationals living in Italy are becoming increasingly concerned by the lack of news about a reciprocal driving licence agreement post-Brexit, and say the current 'catch-22' situation is adversely affecting their lives.

Frustration grows as UK driving licence holders in Italy wait in limbo

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Italy who are currently playing a waiting game on the validity of their driving licences.

Those who are driving in Italy on a UK-issued permit currently have just over six months left before their licence is no longer accepted on Italy’s roads.

READ ALSO: Driving licences: How does situation for Brits in Italy compare to rest of Europe?

That is, unless a deal is reached between the UK and Italy, or another extension period is granted.

Another extension would mark the third time the authorities have deferred making an agreement on UK driving licences in Italy.

When Britain left the EU at the end of 2020, British and Italian authorities hadn’t reached a reciprocal deal on driving licences.

However, UK licence holders living in Italy were granted a 12-month grace period in which they could continue to drive on their British licences in Italy.

With just days to go before the deadline in December 2021, those still using a UK licence were granted a reprieve when it was further extended for another 12 months until the end of 2022.

But the situation from January 1st, 2023, remains unknown.

In the remaining few months, British nationals driving in Italy who hadn’t converted their licence to an Italian one before January 1st, 2021 face the same choice again: wait and hope for an agreement or start the lengthy and costly process of taking their Italian driving test.

There is still no confirmation on reaching an agreement on driving licences. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Many UK nationals have contacted The Local recently to express their frustration, anger and concern over the situation, explaining how the possibility of not being to drive in Italy would profoundly impact their lives.

For some, it would mean not being able to get to work, losing their independence, not being to reach supermarkets for the food shop in remote areas, or not being able to take their children to school.

And in the meantime, many readers told us it means ongoing worry and uncertainty.

Reader David (not his real name), who moved to the southern region of Puglia shortly before Brexit hit, tells us he now finds himself in a “horrible catch-22 situation”.

He summed up the feeling among many of those who contacted The Local by saying: “It is highly concerning and not at all helpful for mental or physical health in a period when we are trying to settle in to a new life in Italy.”

He points out that, for him, retaking his driving test and getting an Italian licence would also mean having to sell his car and buy one with a less powerful engine.

“I realise that if I pass the Italian driving test and obtain an Italian licence, then I will be a neopatente (new driver) with three years of serious restrictions,” he says.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about getting an Italian driving licence post-Brexit

Newly administered licences in Italy carry restrictions including on the maximum engine size of the car the holder may drive, tighter speed limits on the motorway and extra penalty points for breaking them.

“In this situation, I am honestly dis-incentivised to get the Italian licence unless there seriously is a real ‘no deal’ scenario on the table,” he says.

“Because if I get an Italian licence now – and of course I could choose now to invest a lot of time and money to get it – and then an agreement is reached to exchange licenses, then I might find myself in a worse position than if I just waited to do an exchange.”

“I am sincerely hoping for an agreement to be reached for experienced drivers with a UK licence.”

James Appleton lives in Milan and says he feels “frustrated about the situation”. Although he concedes that he lives in the city with all the convenience that implies, he is worried about having a car sitting outside his flat that he can no longer drive from January.

“The frustration now is with little over six months left of the year, advice from the authorities has continued to be quite unhelpful,” he tells us.

“We keep hearing, ‘consider your options’. I know my options: I have to start the process of taking a test, which is expensive and lengthy, and which may turn out to be unnecessary, or wait until the end of the year. Those have been my options for year and a half,” he adds.

Frustration for many British nationals still waiting on a post-Brexit driving licence agreement. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

“I feel very much in limbo. If it gets to November and we still haven’t heard anything, I risk having a car that I can’t drive from January as my licence may no longer be valid.

My hope would be if there’s not to be a deal, let us know so there’s time to take the test,” James says. “I don’t want to find out with a week to go, like last year.”

He points to the fact that many other non-EU countries have reciprocal driving licence agreements with Italy, so why not the UK? Meanwhile, Italy is one of only two countries in the EU still not to have made a deal on driving licences.

While he said he didn’t want to sound “entitled”, the lack of clarity was simply confusing.

READ ALSO: Q&A: Your questions answered about driving in Italy on a British licence

Like many others, he tried but didn’t manage to convert his British licence in time as he moved to Italy shortly before the Brexit deadline.

James registered as a resident in December 2020, leaving little time to begin the conversion process. He admitted it was partly his fault “for not having realised the consequences of what was going to happen”.

But “there are some people in a position where it wasn’t so straightforward to convert your licence,” he notes.

This was true for another reader, who wished to remain anonymous. She tells us that she tried to begin the conversion of her UK driving licence three times in Imperia, where she lives, but was told to “wait and see what is decided”.

“No one has taken a note of my requests and attempts so I cannot prove my attempts to get this sorted or listed,” she says.

READ ALSO: How to import your car or motorbike to Italy

In her case, it would therefore be difficult to prove that she began the conversion process before January 1st, 2021.

She also faced setbacks when trying to convert her licence in time after applying for residency before Brexit.

On being told that she needed her final ID card (carta d’identità) proving her residence, she returned to her town hall but couldn’t get the card for another seven months due to no appointments being available.

“Then I couldn’t get the licence exchanged as the person dealing with this was not at work on the day I went. I had to fly back to UK then Covid restrictions kicked in, hampering travel and by then UK was out of Europe and the Italian/UK driver’s licence issues remained unsolved,” she added.

The question on a UK-Italy driving licence agreement rolls on. Photo by FABIO MUZZI / AFP

So is there any hope that an agreement will be reached and those driving on a UK licence won’t need to sit an Italian driving test?

At this point there are no indications as to whether a decision will be reached either way. The British government continues to advise licence holders to sit their Italian driving test, while also stating that they’re working on reaching a deal.

The latest update to the driving guidance on the British government’s ‘Living in Italy’ webpage in January states:

“If you were resident in Italy before 1 January 2022 you can use your valid UK licence until 31 December 2022,” however, “you must exchange your licence for an Italian one by 31 December 2022. You will need to take a driving test (in Italian).”

The guidance then states: “The British and Italian governments continue to negotiate long-term arrangements for exchanging driving licences without needing to take a test.”

So far, so much conflicting advice, as many readers point out.

Of those who have decided to take the plunge and sit the Italian driving test, some say it’s “not as difficult as it sounds” while others report having trouble with the highly technical questions in the theory test, not to mention the fact that the test has to be taken in Italian.

If you speak French or German better than Italian, the test may be available in those languages – but not in English.

READ ALSO: Getting your Italian driving licence: the language you need to pass your test

“My question is why can’t you take your driving test in English? Adding it as an option for taking the test would help,” says Njideka Nwachukwu, who moved to Italy in 2019. She failed the theory test and has to try again, at a further cost.

Even if you find taking the test a breeze, the process is known to take around six months – if you pass everything first time – and to set you back hundreds of euros.

At the time of writing, neither Italian nor British government officials have given any indication as to if or when a deal may be reached, or an explanation of why the two countries have not yet been able to reach an agreement.

Nor has any explanation been given as to why this important aspect of life in Italy was never protected under the Withdrawal Agreement in the first place.

When contacted by The Local recently for an update on the situation, the British Embassy in Rome stated: “rest assured the Embassy continues to prioritise the issue of UK driving licence validity in Italy and we continue to engage with the Italian government on this issue.”

The Local will continue to ask for updates regarding the use of British driving licences in Italy.

Thank you to everyone who contacted The Local to tell us how they are affected by this issue, including those we couldn’t feature in this article.

Find more information on the UK government website’s Living in Italy section.

See The Local’s latest Brexit-related news updates for UK nationals in Italy here.

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