New research suggests that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was not associated with a subsequent large-scale increase in depression among Democrats in the United States. The study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, used several big data measures to investigate Americans’ emotional response to the Trump presidency.
“The main question we wanted to address is, can a political loss, a symbolic loss, result in psychopathology. We figured that if any political loss could cause that, it would be the devastating Democratic loss in 2016,” explained study author Almog Simchon (@almogsi), a PhD student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
The researchers conducted an initial survey of 507 self-identified Republicans and Democrats via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which found that Democrats reported feeling more depressive symptoms after than before the election. Republicans, on the other hand, reported experiencing less depression after the election than before.
However, the researchers were interested in whether their explicit reference to the 2016 election was influencing the responses. So they conducted a second survey of 481 Republicans and Democrats, “and instead asked participants to answer the depression questionnaire as it relates to the years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.” The researchers found no difference between Republican and Democratic participants when they used this methodology.
Both surveys relied on self-reported data. To avoid some of the pitfalls of subjective assessments, Simchon and his colleagues then looked at four objective measures of depression.
Guided by previous research that has indicated language use on social media websites can be predictive of depression, the researchers used a machine-learning model to analyze 10,584,997 tweets. They found a transient increase in liberals’ level of depression that only lasted for the first few days after the election.
Simchon and his colleagues also examined Google searches for depression-related words in the time period before and after the election, changes in state-level antidepressants consumption on Medicaid between 2016 and 2017, and changes in data from the Gallup U.S. Poll, which tracked depression diagnoses. But the researchers failed to find a significant increase in signs of depression.
“Grossly speaking, our data suggest that America did not get more depressed because of Trump. That said, we find conflicting results when people are asked directly on this issue vs. other sources of information (Twitter discourse, Google searches, Medicaid antidepressants consumption, and Gallup surveys). It suggests that people are more mentally resilient than they might think they are,” Simchon told PsyPost.
The study examined large-scale trends, so the findings do not rule out the possibility that some sub-populations in the United States faced an increase in depression after Trump’s electoral victory.
“Our results are based on data collected until the end of 2017, so we can only speak to that time frame. Also, other studies report higher levels of psychological distress among people of color and other marginalized groups as a result of the Trump presidency. Our analyses focused on the differences between Democrats and Republicans; higher resolution demographics may tell a more nuanced story,” Simchon explained.
“I want to stress that we do not suggest that people lie on self-report. Emotions are complex, and different methods tell different parts of the story; this is why we took a multimethod approach. Additionally, our results should not be taken as evidence that no-one has experienced election-related depression. Our results address the population level, not specific individuals.”
The study, “Political Depression? A Big-Data, Multi-Method Investigation of Americans’ Emotional Response to the Trump Presidency“, was authored by Almog Simchon, Sharath Chandra Guntuku, Rotem Simhon, Lyle H. Ungar, Ran R. Hassin, and Michael Gilead.