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After Trump: More Americans perceive ‘Politics’ exact a chronic negative toll on their health

“1 in 20 adults has contemplated suicide because of politics,” the report shows.

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The most stunning finding was that 5% of Americans blame politics for having suicidal thoughts.

Scrolling through social media, reading websites, listening to podcasts, and watching the news. With so many options, following American politics has never been easier, but at what cost?

According to Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, all of the political wrangling has been detrimental to our health for some time, and even a change in party leadership hasn’t helped.

Smith has released a new research in PLOS ONE as a follow-up to his landmark 2017 survey study, in which he first quantified the effects of the political atmosphere on Americans’ physical, social, mental, and emotional health. In 2020, Smith conducted the same 32-question survey twice: two weeks before the election and two weeks afterwards. The findings from 2020 were similar to those from 2017, with a substantial proportion of American people blaming politics for stress, lack of sleep, shattered relationships, and other issues.

Similar to the 2017 findings, the 2020 polls indicated that almost 40% of Americans consider politics to be a major source of stress. Politics was also blamed by a fifth to a third of adults (50 to 85 million people) for generating fatigue, feelings of rage, losing their temper, and triggering obsessive behaviors. Approximately a fifth of adults said they had seriously considered moving because of politics.

Smith expressed concern that the results had remained essentially consistent after nearly four years.

“This second round of surveys pretty conclusively demonstrates that the first survey was not out of left field — that what we found in that first survey really is indicative of what many Americans are experiencing,” said Smith, chair and professor of political science.

“It’s also unpleasant to think that in that span of time, nothing changed. A huge chunk of American adults genuinely perceive politics is exacting a serious toll on their social, their psychological and even their physical health.”

Smith repeated the survey with the same set of people both before and after the election to see if the outcome — whatever it was — would change people’s attitudes.

“We wondered if a change in presidency, which indeed was the case, would shift attitudes, and the short answer is no,” Smith added. “If anything, the costs that people perceive politics is exacting on their health increased a little bit after the election.”

The repeated finding that 5% of Americans blame politics for suicide thoughts shocked Smith the most.

“One in 20 adults has contemplated suicide because of politics,” Smith said. “That showed up in the first survey in 2017, and we wondered if it was a statistical artifact. But in the two surveys since, we found exactly the same thing, so millions of American adults have contemplated suicide because of politics. That’s a serious health problem.”

Younger adults, who were more likely to be negatively influenced by politics, were more likely to be Democratic-leaning, interested in politics, and politically engaged.

“If there’s a profile of a person who is more likely to experience these effects from politics, it’s people with those traits,” Smith said.

Smith warned that the findings could be a dangerous recipe for democracy, in addition to pointing to a possible health problem.

“There’s potential for a demobilization effect here,” Smith said. “If people view politics as so conflictual, and potentially a threat to their own well-being, they’ll say ‘heck with it, I don’t want to get involved.’ And democracies depend on participation. We need civically-engaged citizens.”

So, how might these consequences be decreased? Smith said that’s an issue he’ll look into more in future studies, though his team has uncovered one possible solution: being more politically aware. 

“People who were more politically knowledgeable were less likely to report these negative outcomes,” Smith said. “Something I’d really like to look at would be if you took somebody who’s politically interested, but not particularly politically knowledgeable, and they were given information about the political system, would that reduce these negative costs of politics? That could be a positive outcome of civic education that’s never been considered before.”

Image Credit: Getty

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