Some years ago I interviewed a former catwalk model about suicide in the modelling industry. Elena, who had gone on to train as a psychologist, described spending her late teenage years in a world in which she was constantly on show, but no one encouraged her to articulate her feelings. She could never tell whether the relationships she had, especially with men, were genuine or fake (were they sleeping with her or with the model in the photo?), where the unreal stopped and the real began, where the actual Elena was and where the fantasy girl on the cover of the magazine. And the paradoxical thing, she told me, was that one of the only ways she found she could prove to herself what was real, was by trying to take her own life.

I thought of that interview during and after the Brexit referendum, as people – especially non-English friends – said that the UK seemed to be committing a massive act of self-harm. The constant incantations by certain Brexiters that the country needs to go through a period of difficulty – the Second World War is often invoked – in order to find its true character reminded me of the way Elena had described self-harm as, paradoxically, seeming to offer a way back to her real self. I know that a nation doesn’t experience trauma in the same way as a person, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the Leave campaign’s latching onto the phrase ‘take back control’ hadn’t been not only about appealing to what Dominic Cummings called a desire for ‘loss aversion’, but had also touched on something deeper, darker, more self-destructive.

I searched the internet for ‘take back control’ and ‘self-harm’. The Royal College of Psychiatrists says: ‘You may be more likely to harm yourself if you feel: that people don’t listen to you; hopeless; isolated, alone; out of control; powerless – it feels as though there’s nothing you can do to change anything … Self-harm can help you to feel in control, and reduce uncomfortable feelings of tension and distress.’ A newspaper article from 2009 pointed to a threefold rise in self-harm and suicide in the context of growing economic inequality:

According to new research published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the growing gap between rich and poor has led to an increase in mental health problems such as depression and self-harm in countries including the UK and US … Rufus May, a clinical psychologist in Bradford, said: ‘Self-harm is a release. It anaesthetises people from the pain of feeling wretched and unworthy. It helps us escape the pain of living in a competitive, self-conscious world where we rarely feel that we are making the grade. It can also be an expression of anger. This is one way to briefly be powerful and take back control.’

Perhaps Google was just confirming my biases: I had, after all, typed ‘take back control’ and ‘self-harm’ into the search bar, so no wonder I was getting results that reinforced that association. I turned to Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst and writer. He agreed that the urge to take back control was consistent with patients who damage themselves through anorexia or cutting, but he also gave a psychoanalytic account of one kind of suicidal tendency. This typically involves a splitting of oneself into two, a sort of internal hyper-polarisation; one creates a second self onto which one places all one’s problems, and then murders that second self:

This is understood precisely as a way of ‘taking back control’, on the basis that tyrannising someone else for their evil ways is far easier than addressing the same problems in myself. This is also related to what Melanie Klein calls ‘splitting’ of the object – I am good, the object is bad, ‘split off’. Many shrinks have noted how prominent the language of splitting is in Brexit and post-Trump discourse. And again, splitting is one of the most basic mechanisms of control, in that it concentrates everything I fear and dislike in one place.

The strategy of Cummings, Bannon and the rest is based on creating ever more extreme polarisation between the ‘people’ and ‘non-people’ (immigrants, the EU, anyone in London) who are accused of being the source of any problem you may have, everything you ‘fear and dislike in one place’. Targeted online messages allow spin doctors to model their campaigns to satisfy a vast and disparate range of often contradictory grievances. The digital director of Vote Leave once told me that you need about seventy different messages in a population of twenty million. The trick is to connect them to one enemy that is supposedly the cause of the pain from whom one has to ‘take back control’.

But of course all these problems can’t be solved with a simple act of ‘taking back control’. Quite the opposite: it’s set us off on a spiral of self-destruction, with political parties, the UK itself and even families splitting apart. Once again I find myself thinking back to Elena and her suicide attempt:

Just before I jumped I suddenly and strongly understood that this attempt would not actually help solve my problems. I had the sense that it wasn’t the first time I was standing on this stool, and that centuries ago I had stood on the same stool with this same rope round my neck, and will stand for another hundred years if I don’t learn to live another way. I still jumped off, because it had been my decision and I needed to go through with it, finish what I had begun. But before I jumped I knew this wasn’t the end. That if you don’t learn to deal with things differently this will just keep on happening again, from difficulty to difficulty you will be standing on this chair with this rope round your neck and look for a solution that simply doesn’t exist.

She jumped. The hook the rope was wrapped around was torn out of the wall. She hit the floor, passed out, and came round four hours later.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org