We’ve been trying to decide what our first blog post would be for a while now, we were hoping to be able to comment on a nice uplifting news article or new piece of research – something positive so we’d get off on the right foot and wow you with our psychological prowess. But actually at the moment, all the news is awful. So instead of trying to wait for that silver lining comment piece, I thought it would be better to practice what I preach and avoid avoidance by talking about everything that’s going on right now. And I don’t want to get too political here – whatever your views on the recent Brexit vote, or who should be the new Prime Minister, or whether gun laws should change are yours and yours alone, this blog is not designed to be a platform for political debates; what I’m talking about – and maybe this is just me, but the general sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that seem to be emanating at the moment as a response to everything that’s going on.
Although the EU referendum vote in itself was in our control, but personally I’m not so sure we as ‘lay people’ (for want of a better word) have the credentials to make such an important decision about our country. It was evident from the most popular google search the day of the announcement being “what is the EU?”, that actually, we probably weren’t as equipped for this vote as we should have been. Don’t get me wrong I know there are huge amounts of the population that were thrilled with the outcome, and that’s good because they exercised their voice which we are all entitled to do. However a lot of the electorate have been left feeling either duped for relying on statistics which have turned out to be falsified claims, or disappointed that despite their vote, we are still leaving the European Union, a dramatic change with repercussions and consequences nobody can be certain about. (Quick disclosure here, I was one of those latter people). Since the outcome of the vote it’s sort of felt like a lot of the UK’s stability is crumbling a bit, and that insecurity can lead to powerful feelings of hopelessness, despair and grief. It is as though we’ve lost something in all of this. Following the vote a huge number of politicians quit, which immediately led to a feeling of instability at a time when we need a strong leadership to navigate the way through these changes. Additionally the outcome of the vote has led to an increase in racism and xenophobia – or maybe just a more vocal increase in people’s already present feelings; it’s almost as though the country voting to leave (by a tiny margin might I add) has made discrimination and prejudice okay again, it feels like we’ve taken ten steps backwards.
Being an assistant psychologist in an office of assistant psychologists, and ever the optimist, I immediately tried to formulate this process with the help from my other AP’s. We found that a lot of what we’re experiencing can be explained by the Kübler-Ross change curve, a psychological model developed in the 1960s by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It was origionally designed to explain the grieving process, hence why it bears such similarities to the widely known “5 stage of grief” model, but has since been used to understand and explain reactions to significant upheaval or change in a person’s life, and the impact this is likely to have on their daily capabilities and performance.
I think shock was a common experience for most people following the vote, whichever way people voted ; I think the remain people were surprised that we actually left, but also a lot of the leave voters were also surprised by this as most of the exit polls had indicated the vote going in the opposite direction. The flurry of petitions to re-run the vote, or even try and keep London as part of the EU because of its overwhelming majority voting to remain, demonstrated the denial that people are experiencing which again is explained using this model.
A couple of weeks on, the mood has moved more to frustration and depression, with remain voters coming to terms with the fact that this isn’t a decision that can now be changed. People genuinely seem to be having a really tough time with this change, and according to a recent news article Psychologists are reporting higher incidences of anxiety, difficulty sleeping, lack of appetite and low mood related to the vote outcome, and mental health referrals have already increased. In the wake of the vote results being announced we have had swaths of politicians leaving their posts because they do not support the decision that has been made, and even by those who were supporting this outcome, which has led to further public frustration and uncertainty. There have also already been a lot of withdrawals of promises from the leave campaign, most notably the quick U-turn Mr Farage made on the claim the extra money we will save (£350 million) would be going to fund the NHS. Due to this, the frustration is not only within the remain camps, and the Independent reported that of the 17.4 million people who voted to Leave, 1.1 million of these now wish they had not done so.
The depression is evident, but it makes sense, people are mad and they’re scared, they’re not ready to move on yet and acknowledge the new reality. Often we hunt for a scapegoat we can pass the blame onto – something tangible that anger can be aimed towards to make them feel better, which is evident at the moment with the hate for the government and marches taking place particularly in London. Morale is very low and this isn’t a change we’ve experienced before so nobody is quite sure what happens next and that uncertainty is keeping people from moving forwards. However it won’t remain this way forever, people will move forwards and into acceptance and integration of this new reality. The final phase of the change curve involves experimenting with the change, trying it on for size and seeing how it fits in our world, which will come in time as the outcomes of this result become more clear and understandable, and this will be followed by acceptance and a gradual improvement in morale, we just have to be patient and allow it to be processed.
I like this model. I think it’s useful in situations like this for people to be able to see how their emotions are likely to progress. It’s important to note that although stage 1 then 2 then 3 is the most common way of travelling through the curve, there isn’t a right or wrong passage and some people may find they don’t follow the same track as others, and each do so at their own speed. The value in models such as this is providing hope and direction when people are feeling lost, they show that although you may be feeling quite depressed at the moment, it’s okay because it’s going to get better, and challenging your cognitions about the change that causing these emotions will help you improve your mood and develop in a positive direction.
Change is scary, but there’s no escaping it. And big changes, whole country changes, will always be daunting because it makes us feel small, but it opens discussions about powerlessness that I think are important to have. I work on an acute psychiatric ward and I was sat with a few of the service users in our activities room the week after the Brexit vote discussing how London as a whole had voted in and so many people were disappointed that we’d left, and one of the patients just said “people are annoyed that a decision has been made that will affect them and it’s not what they wanted, well now they know how we feel when we’re held under a section”. It was powerful, and it’s something we will absolutely be coming back too in another blog post soon.