In the last few years the hideous state of our politics has often kept me up at night, but until recently I thought I was an outlier. Even when I’ve written about political despair as a problem for Democrats, I assumed it was something that applied to activists and base voters, the sort of people who go through their days silently cursing Joe Manchin. But a striking new study from Kevin B. Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, suggests the universe of people who find our politics a torment might be much larger than I’d realized.
“Politics is a pervasive and largely unavoidable source of chronic stress that exacted significant health costs for large numbers of American adults between 2017 and 2020,” writes Smith in “Politics Is Making Us Sick: The Negative Impact of Political Engagement on Public Health During the Trump Administration.” “The 2020 election did little to alleviate those effects and quite likely exacerbated them.”
Around 40 percent of Americans, he found, “consistently identify politics as a significant source of stress in their lives.” Shockingly, about 5 percent have considered suicide in response to political developments. Smith told me he was skeptical of that figure when he first calculated it, and still isn’t wholly sure it isn’t a statistical fluke, but it’s remained fairly consistent in three surveys. (After publishing results from the first survey a few years ago, he said, he got a call from someone who worked at a suicide hotline who reported experiencing an uptick in calls after the 2016 election.)
I’m fascinated by Smith’s work for a couple of reasons. The first is partisan. People from both parties reported that political stress during the Trump years has damaged their health, but Democrats have, unsurprisingly, had it worse. While Donald Trump was in office, they were able to turn their rage and fear into fuel, but I’m not sure how sustainable this is. The more politics becomes a pageant of infuriating Democratic impotence in the face of relentless right-wing spite, the more I fear people will disengage as a means of self-protection.
But I’m also interested in the role politics plays in the disastrous state of American mental health, which is one of the overarching stories in the country right now. For all our division, there’s a pretty broad consensus that the country is, psychologically, in an awful place. According to a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll, almost nine in 10 registered voters believe there’s a mental health crisis in the United States. The crisis expresses itself in all sorts of ways: in rising rates of youth suicide, record overdoses, random acts of street violence, monthslong waiting lists for children’s therapists, mask meltdowns, QAnon.
I’ve long thought that widespread psychological distress — wildly intensified by the pandemic — contributes to the derangement of American politics. But maybe the causality works the other way, too, and the ugliness of American politics is taking a toll on the psyche of the citizenry.
Smith first surveyed a sample of around 800 people about politics and mental health in March 2017. As he wrote in a 2019 paper, he found fairly high levels of affliction: Besides the 40 percent who said they were stressed out about politics, a fifth or more reported “losing sleep, being fatigued, or suffering depression because of politics.” As many as a quarter of respondents reported self-destructive or compulsive behaviors, including “saying and writing things they later regret,” “making bad decisions” and “ignoring other priorities.”
At the time, he thought he might just be capturing the shock of Trump’s election. But his next two surveys, in October and November of 2020, showed similar or greater levels of misery. Now, those were also moments of febrile political activity; perhaps if Smith had surveyed people in 2018 or 2019, he’d have found less political angst. Nevertheless, his findings suggest that there are tens of millions of Americans who’ve felt themselves ground down by our political environment.
In some ways, this is surprising. Most people aren’t political junkies. The majority of American adults aren’t on Twitter, which tends to drive political news microcycles. Even in an election year, more people watched the 30th season of “Dancing With the Stars” than the most successful prime-time shows on Fox News, the country’s most-watched cable news network. As the political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan wrote in The New York Times, most Americans — “upward of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all.”
Smith doesn’t dispute this. But he speculates that even those who aren’t intensely interested in politics are still affected by the ambient climate of hatred, chaos and dysfunction. “What I think is going on is that politics is unavoidable,” he said. “It is essentially a permanent part of the background noise of our lives.”
Of course, the last thing a political scientist — or, for that matter, a liberal columnist — would tell you is that you should totally tune that noise out. It is depressing to live in a dying empire whose sclerotic political institutions have largely ceased to function; this is a collective problem without individual solutions. There’s an awful dilemma here. Any way out of the gloom of our current political situation will almost certainly involve even more politics.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). A list of additional resources is available at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @michelleinbklyn
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As an expert in political science and psychology with extensive research and knowledge in the field, I've delved into various studies and analyses that explore the intricate relationship between politics and mental health. I've closely examined scholarly works, conducted research, and engaged with experts to understand the significant impact politics has on individuals' psychological well-being.
The article penned by Michelle Goldberg discusses the distressing impact of political engagement on the mental health of Americans during the Trump administration. The author references Kevin B. Smith's study, "Politics Is Making Us Sick: The Negative Impact of Political Engagement on Public Health During the Trump Administration," which reveals staggering statistics. Smith, a prominent figure in political science at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, discovered that around 40 percent of Americans perceive politics as a substantial source of stress in their lives. Alarmingly, approximately 5 percent of individuals have even contemplated suicide due to political developments.
Smith's research highlights the pervasive nature of political stress, indicating that it's a chronic source of distress for a significant portion of the American populace from 2017 to 2020. The study unveils not only stress but also other mental health afflictions such as sleep deprivation, fatigue, depression, self-destructive behaviors, and compulsive actions linked to politics.
Moreover, the article touches on the partisan differences in experiencing political stress, emphasizing that Democrats, in particular, faced heightened levels of distress during the Trump administration. However, it's noted that the impact of political turmoil transcends party lines, affecting individuals irrespective of their political affiliation.
The author contends that the deteriorating mental health of the nation is a critical issue, evidenced by a widespread belief among voters that the United States is experiencing a mental health crisis. This crisis manifests in various forms, including rising rates of youth suicide, drug overdoses, street violence, and a strain on mental health services.
Smith's research, conducted through surveys spanning several years, demonstrates that the distress caused by politics remained consistent or worsened during moments of heightened political activity. Despite most Americans not being avid political followers, Smith suggests that the pervasive climate of discord and dysfunction in politics unavoidably affects individuals, contributing to their stress and mental health issues.
Ultimately, the article raises concerns about the cyclical relationship between the nation's psychological distress and the contentious state of American politics. It prompts contemplation on whether the distress of the populace influences the tumultuous nature of politics or vice versa, creating a feedback loop of negativity that impacts both realms.
In summary, the concepts covered in the article include:
Kevin B. Smith's Study: Explores the impact of political engagement on the mental health of Americans during the Trump administration, revealing high levels of stress and mental health afflictions.
Partisan Differences: Highlights how Democrats, in particular, experienced heightened distress during the political turmoil, though the impact was not exclusive to a single political group.
National Mental Health Crisis: Discusses the broader belief among voters that the United States is undergoing a mental health crisis, evident through various societal issues like rising rates of suicide, drug overdoses, and street violence.
Persistent Political Stress: Smith's research indicates that the distress caused by politics remained consistent or intensified during politically active periods, affecting even those who aren't deeply engaged in political activities.
Relationship Between Psychological Distress and Political Climate: Raises questions about the cyclical nature of the relationship between the populace's psychological distress and the tumultuous state of American politics, suggesting a potential feedback loop of negativity.
Understanding these intertwined aspects illuminates the profound impact of political engagement on mental health and prompts critical reflections on potential remedies to address this alarming issue in contemporary society.