College students faced upsurge in anxiety, stress, and poor sleep the day after the 2016 election

University students experienced a significant increase in anger, fear, marginalization, and stress on the day after the 2016 election, according to a new study published in Psychological Reports. Their sleep quality also suffered.

“I first became interested in this topic after hearing how strongly students were reacting to the 2016 presidential election results in the classes I teach (some positive, some negative),” said Michael J. Roche of Penn State Altoona, the corresponding author of the study.

“I realized that my research study (which tracked daily psychological health for two weeks) happened to begin just before the election, giving us an opportunity to explore the impact to psychological health in a way that had never been done before.”

The researchers had 85 university students take a daily survey regarding their mood, stress, and mental health before and after the 2016 election. “We tracked daily psychological health for two weeks, starting a few days before the election, and concluding a few weeks after the election,” Roche explained.

He and his colleague, Nicholas C. Jacobson, observed a spike in negative emotions and stress along with a drop in sleep quality the day after the election. The participants also reported an upsurge of race, gender, or age discrimination.

“The main result was that students reported signs of negative emotions (anxiety, anger, fear) and other aspects of worsening psychological health (stress, poor sleep quality, marginalization, experiencing discrimination) on the day following the election,” Roche told PsyPost. “Some of these reactions only lasted for a day, while others appeared to be longer lasting (anger, fear, marginalization).”

“This information can help counseling centers provide help for students, directing resources to address the difficulties that appear longer lasting. It may also help universities better understand their students so they can assist students in having productive reactions to the election (whether their candidate won or lost). This is especially important as many college students will be first time voters.”

A similar study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found an overall increase in negative moods among university students in the run-up to the election, which peaked on Election Day.

But Roche admitted his study has some limitations.

“The small sample size (less than 100 students) limits generalizability, and we also didn’t know political affiliation which may have had a role to play in student reactions,” he said. “These results apply to the 2016 presidential election, but it is possible that one would find these same results for any presidential election. Future research is needed to see if these reactions were typical or unique to the 2016 presidential election.”

“This research is innovative because most political research we are aware of does not directly measure change over time within a person. For instance, most polls sample new people each day, rather than asking someone’s opinion across multiple occasions,” Roche added.

“This is important because if an approval rating moves from 40% to 30%, we have no idea whether people are changing their minds, or if the people who agreed to respond to a poll that day happened to have a less approving view of the elected official. The potential of our research design (sampling individuals over time) can allow us to answer questions about change more directly. This has the potential to improve the predictive power of polling data, which has been recently questioned for its validity.”

The study was titled: “Elections Have Consequences for Student Mental Health: An Accidental Daily Diary Study”.