American politics really are making people feel sick, study reveals

LINCOLN, Neb. — Talking politics tends to give many people a splitting headache. Now, a new study confirms that the American political scene really does harm a person’s overall health.

A researcher from the University of Nebraska notes that four in 10 people cite politics as a top stressor in their lives. Many add the topic causes them to lose sleep and fractures their relationships. Alarmingly, one in 20 even say thinking about and discussing politics leaves them feeling suicidal.

Professor Kevin Smith says that following political leaders’ movements has never been easier, thanks to social media, online websites, podcasts, and the non-stop TV news cycle. However, all the jockeying for power is having a terrible effect on public well-being — so much so that even a change in party does not help.

Changing presidents doesn’t help

The findings come from the results of a 32-question survey of Americans conducted two weeks prior to the 2020 election and two weeks after. The results mirrored an earlier survey carried out in 2017.

“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,” says Prof. Smith in a university release.

“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.”

The analysis, published in the journal PLOS ONE, shows the phenomenon applies to both the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations.

Prof. Smith says the fact that the results remained mostly stable after nearly four years is a cause for concern. Similar to the earlier findings, 50 to 85 million people blame politics for causing fatigue, feelings of anger, loss of temper, and triggering compulsive behaviors.

About a quarter reported giving serious thought to moving because of the politics in their state.

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

“One in 20 adults has contemplated suicide because of politics,” the researcher adds. “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.”

Who do politics harm the most?

The study finds the people most likely to feel the strain of politics are younger, lean Democrat, show more interest in politics, and actively engage more in political causes.

“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 says.

Besides pointing to a possible health crisis, the findings could also be a bad sign for democracy, according to the study author.

“There’s potential for a demobilization effect here,” Smith explains. “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.”

Smith plans to explore how people can reduce the health impacts of politics in future research. Becoming more politically knowledgeable is one suggestion.

“People who were more politically knowledgeable were less likely to report these negative outcomes,” the researcher concludes.

“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.”

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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