Liberal Americans’ Distress At 2016 Election Result Shouldn’t Be Labelled “Depression”, Study Argues

Photo: Supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton react during election night 2016. Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

By Emily Reynolds

Anyone who’s been invested in an election result will understand the close relationship between politics and emotion — something that is perhaps even more affecting when that result is disappointing. After the 2016 presidential election, for example, articles appeared in the US press describing a “national nervous breakdown” and offering tips to deal with so-called “political depression”, and empirical studies indicated that the same event had caused psychological distress.

But while it would be hard to deny that politics can have a serious impact on our mood, is it correct to call that “depression”? Almog Simchon at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and team ask this question in a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology — and while they find self-reported “Trump depression” in liberal Americans post-election, the empirical data suggests this isn’t an enduring or even clinically significant experience.

In the first part of the study, participants indicated which political party they felt the greatest identification with, as well as which presidential candidate they had voted for in 2016; they then indicated how down, depressed and hopeless they had felt for the year before the election, the two weeks before the election, and from the election until the day of the survey, which took place in May 2018. As expected, those who identified as Democrats reported feeling more depressed after the election, with the opposite effect to be found in Republicans.

The team then repeated the experiment with new participants — only now all references to the election were omitted, with questions instead focusing purely on the timeframes involved. This time, there was no evidence of a post-election increase in depression among Democrats. This suggests that the emotional valence of certain events can change the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives.

The next study looked more broadly at liberal American responses to the election using real time data about people’s moods at the time of the election. To do this, the team used a machine learning algorithm originally designed to detect depression from social media users’ posts. The team analysed over 10 million tweets posted between October and November 2016, and while there was an effect on Democrats’ moods in the first few days after the election, this response was not long-lived: by November 13th, moods had returned to their pre-election baseline. A similar analysis of Google searches, looking for terms such as “depression”, “depression symptoms”, and “depression test” also found no indication that the election had caused a significant increase in depression.

Social media may not be the best gauge for understanding the long-term impact of an event on mental health — Twitter in particular is fast-moving and responsive to ongoing events, and not necessarily so good at capturing deeper or more persistent effects. But the findings do suggest, again, that emotional responses to the election were more ephemeral than the term “depression” might suggest.

Two final studies looked at real world attempts to seek help for depression. The first looked at state-level antidepressant consumption on Medicaid between 2016 and 2017, and the second at the number of people seeking treatment for depression before and after the election, using a data set that also contained daily information about depression and political affiliation.

For the state-level data, the team found that the state’s political affiliation — Democratic or Republican — had no bearing on changes in antidepressant usage from before to after the election. And in the second study, there was no evidence that the depression levels of liberal Americans increased after the election.

So it seems that reports of “Trump depression” are not quite accurate: in every study other than the first — in which participants were specifically reminded of the election — there was no evidence at all that depression had increased after the election.

The team suggests that self-reports of post-election depression could be somewhat performative, signalling group identity and ideological beliefs. This might not tell the whole story, though — there’s no evidence here that the feelings of distress or hopelessness felt by liberals after the election were false or purely performative, just that they weren’t clinically significant or persistent enough to be considered depression per se.

It would be interesting to look further into the traits and demographics of those reporting feelings of distress. If you’re a wealthy person with liberal politics, for example, then an election win for a pro-austerity party might be distressing but is unlikely to have as significant an impact on the material conditions of your life as that of someone on a low wage or in precarious work. Would the latter party be more likely to experience depression? And what protective factors are at play when it comes to weathering political distress?

The team partly puts the use of the term “Trump depression” down to “concept creep”, an expanding or overgeneralisation of the terminology of mental illness or trauma. It therefore seems important to develop a way to talk about distress — political or otherwise — outside of such terms, which can often be stigmatising or lacking in nuance. Using clinical terms unnecessarily might seem validating, but only serves to diminish both the experiences of those living with serious mental illness and the range of normal emotions that we experience across our political, social and personal lives. 

Political depression? A big-data, multimethod investigation of Americans’ emotional response to the Trump presidency.

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest