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Brexit reveals new findings on minorities & mental health

Being part of a minority group, whose identity is important to you, could negatively affect your mental health. 

That’s the conclusion of a piece of research offered up by the Brexit referendum and published in the journal Social Science and Medicine. (Mental health consequences of minority political positions: The case of Brexit)

Dr Chris Saville, a psychologist at the University’s School of Psychology realized that the Brexit referendum, which created new minority groups, provided a unique opportunity to study how identities affect mental health.

His analysis showed that people whose opinion on Brexit is in the minority in their local area have poorer mental than those with the local majority opinion.

The effect was symmetrical so remainers living in leave-voting areas and leavers living in remain-voting areas were similarly affected.

The paper used a pre-existing large longitudinal survey to show that this pattern only appeared after the referendum in 2016, and was not explained by the pre-referendum mental health of respondents.

Dr Chris Saville said:

“This study shows that the divided and polarised politics following the referendum had a real public health impact on people from both sides of the issue.

A few years ago, the idea that someone’s opinions on EU membership not matching that of their neighbours could be bad for their mental health would be ridiculous. It’s a real demonstration of just how quickly social identities form and how powerful they can be.” 

Dr Caroline Bowman, Interim Head of the School of Psychology commented:

“This research is important beyond Brexit because it casts light on how and why being a member of a minority can be a risk factor for mental health. Much of the research on this topic has focused on minority groups who have longstanding identities, such as ethnic or sexual minorities.”

This study is unusual in being able to look at the mental health of people before and after they became members of minorities that did not previously exist.  

Publication date: 8 June 2020