Does negative campaigning affect mental health?
- Data released this month found that the presidential election is a source of significant stress for many American adults.
- In print and broadcast 24/7 and on everyone's mind, it seems Election 2016 is an unavoidable and ever-present cause of stess.
Stay away from the comments.
That’s the message many mental health professionals and trade organizations say you should take from the discussion surrounding this year’s presidential election. Despite that advice, more than half of all Americans say the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives.
The American Psychology Association’s Stress in America survey has examined how stress affects the health and well-being of American adults for the last decade. In election-related data released this month, they found that across party lines, ages and other demographic measures, the presidential election is a source of significant stress for many American adults.
“We’re seeing that it doesn’t matter whether you’re registered as a Democrat or Republican — U.S. adults say they are experiencing significant stress from the current election,” said Lynn Bufka, APA’s associate executive director for practice research and policy.
Democrats and Republicans were statistically equally likely to say the tone of the 2016 president election was causing them stress. The stress was also about the same across ages and ethnic groups, but higher among social-media users than those who remain off the grid.
“Election stress becomes exacerbated by arguments, stories, images and video on social media that can heighten concern and frustration, particularly with thousands of comments that can range from factual to hostile or even inflammatory,” Bufka said.
Whether it is getting into an argument with someone on the other side of the political aisle, reading and sharing partisan articles or negative clips or turning the television on to talking heads, it seems Election 2016 is unavoidable and ever present.
Conversations: Kenneth Brayboy, a 46-year-old self-described moderate, said conversations with friends and family about the election, especially on social media, are more stressful than the presidential election itself.
"I don't think I'm stressed out about (the presidential) election," the Lancaster resident said. "I'm more concerned about the House and the Senate. They're more important for the Democrats to win back."
Congress, he said, could help improve issues that he says are important in the campaign, such as race relations and political and judicial-system reforms.
"I've started to ignore the posts," he said. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it's definitely not something we talk about at the dinner table."
Thirty-three year old Lisa Oyler, of Dauphin County, said she doesn't vote and does her best to avoid political memes and discussions.
"It seems like we're in a reality show and we're being 'Punk'd,'" said her friend Shantiqua Cross, referencing the hidden camera-practical joke television series that first aired in 2003.
The 30-year-old, still undecided York City resident said the negative tone of this year's campaigning has turned her off so much that she's stopped watching television.
"There is no comparison, but it's like you've picked two people off the street and asked everyone who to vote for," Cross said. She's considering a write-in candidate and turning her attention to Congress instead.
Campaign tone: Dr. Allen Miller, a psychologist and director of WellSpan Health’s department of behavioral health, said he’s seen differences in opinion between some patients regarding the election but doesn't credit their problems specifically to the campaign.
“That can certainly create some stress in the marriage, but if the marriage is stable it’s not going to cause a break up," Allen said.
Instead, he said he sees more stress related to the general tone of the election. Parents are concerned with adult content that’s brought up in the media — they might be uncomfortable involving their children in the political process because of allegations of sexual assault — and a number of “strong, emotionally charged issues” are dividing the general electorate.
“I think people are wondering what this means for the country and what’s going to happen after the election regardless of who is elected,” Miller said.
Students: In the second debate between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump, Clinton pointed to a “Trump effect” in the 2016 campaign, citing an uptick in bullying found by an online survey administered by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance. More than 2,000 educators nationwide responded.
The report from the left-leaning SPLC found that this year’s campaign is producing an "alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color.” Teachers said they saw inflamed racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom, with many students reporting they were worried about being deported.
Instead of using the electoral process as a teaching tool, 40 percent of the educators said they were avoiding bringing election talk into the classroom at all.
This week, Penn State updated university policies on political campaign activities on campus.
A university spokesman said the change was initiated about a year ago at the public university to make sure university funds are not going to one candidate over another and to ensure it didn’t appear the university favored a candidate.
Specifically, the university clarified the rules for hosting university-sponsored events, such as forums or debates; student organizations that host political events; and nonuniversity groups that wish to rent university facilities for political events.
“Since this is such an active campaign season, we wanted to make sure all the responsibilities were clearly laid out for each department,” spokesman Ben Manning said in an email.
Trumpism: Dr. William Doherty, a licensed family therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota, said it’s more than an active campaign season that has Americans stressed.
Doherty organized Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism, a 1,200-word manifesto signed by more than 3,200 mental health professionals.
Trumpism, it says, is an ideology of scapegoating groups of people seen as threats, ridiculing and demeaning critics and rallying around one man despite his flaws
"The public rhetoric of Trumpism normalizes what therapists work against in our work: the tendency to blame others in our lives for our personal fears and insecurities and then battle these others instead of taking the healthier but more difficult path of self-awareness and self-responsibility," it reads. "It also normalizes a kind of hypermasculinity that is antithetical to the examined life and healthy relationships that psychotherapy helps people achieve. Simply stated, Trumpism is inconsistent with emotionally healthy living — and we have to say so publicly."
Doherty likens it to a form of American fascism. By writing and circulating the creed, he said he hopes to give therapists a voice without telling them whom to vote for.
“People have other choices beyond Donald Trump, but we need to say as professionals that we see what Trump represents as it deals with the mental health of our country and to our representative democracy,“ he said.
The manifesto says therapists should speak out against issues that are not just restricted to the Republican presidential candidate. Doherty also wants other mental-health professionals to start asking their clients about stress related to the election and if it's having an effect on their mental health.
“Overwhelmingly people are saying yes. It is causing them stress,” Doherty said.
Does this election have you stressed out?
The American Psychological Association offers the following tips to help people manage their stress related to the election:
- If the 24-hour news cycle of claims and counterclaims from the candidates is causing you stress, limit your media consumption. Read just enough to stay informed. Turn off the newsfeed or take a digital break. Take some time for yourself, go for a walk or spend time with friends and family doing things that you enjoy.
- Avoid getting into discussions about the election if you think they have the potential to escalate to conflict. Be cognizant of the frequency with which you’re discussing the election with friends, family members or co-workers.
- Stress and anxiety about what might happen is not productive. Channel your concerns to make a positive difference on issues you care about. Consider volunteering in your community, advocating for an issue you support or joining a local group. Remember that in addition to the presidential election, there are state and local elections taking place in many parts of the country, providing more opportunities for civic involvement.
- Whatever happens on Nov. 8, life will go on. Our political system and the three branches of government mean that we can expect a significant degree of stability immediately after a major transition of government. Avoid catastrophizing and maintain a balanced perspective.
- Vote. In a democracy, a citizen’s voice does matter. By voting, you will hopefully feel you are taking a proactive step and participating in what for many has been a stressful election cycle. Find balanced information to learn about all the candidates and issues on your ballot (not just the presidential race), make informed decisions and wear your “I voted” sticker with pride.