Separation Anxiety

Focuses on public distress in Quebec resulting from the referendum in which threatened to split the country in two. Association with natural disasters; Political fears.

By Kate Johnson, published March 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


Canadian Seismologists recorded nothing unusual last October. But psychologists in Quebec monitored tremors of earthquake proportions. And the aftershocks continue.

On October 30, the French-speaking province voted, by a margin of just one percent, to remain part of Canada. The referendum, which threatened to split Canada in two, has left an atmosphere of hostility in its wake.

"This is more than ordinary,' stress," says Barbara Wainrib, Ph.D., of the impact the province's uncertain future is having on the mental health of its citizens. "This is traumatic stress, the kind that's normally associated with natural disasters."

Wainrib, a McGill University psychologist who specializes in crisis intervention, first noticed signs of public stress about two weeks before the vote. "My patients were taking half their therapy sessions to talk about their political fears," she recalls.

When the referendum's almost inconclusive result brought continued uncertainty, Wainrib circulated a questionnaire to document public anxiety.

She discovered that families were divided by the issue, marriages threatened. Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported anger and irritability, and two-thirds were worried about moving elsewhere. More than half reported feelings of sadness, loss of trust, and sleep disturbances.

"People have to understand that my Canadian identity is a core piece of who I am," wrote one woman. "When I felt Canada being threatened, it was as if a piece of myself was being torn apart."

Quebec's separatist government, invigorated by the near success of its dream, has promised another referendum in the near future. So there may be no end in sight to the province's anxiety.