A review of 2020 Household Pulse Survey data reveals that as an election nears, people in the United States report more depression and anxiety. The 2020 data is significant as rates of anxiety and depression in the weeks before the November presidential election can be compared with survey data taken in April 2020, the beginning of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, when many Americans would have been concerned about their health and economic security.
Despite these worries, Americans were still more anxious and depressed in November 2020. Examining survey results in 2020 (a unique and challenging year) may help us understand the American elections’ psychological effect.
The new research has been published in the journal Economics & Human Biology.
Elections in the United States, especially presidential elections, are well-publicized events that most Americans feel pressure to participate in. In the last few decades, politicians have had the funding to advertise non-stop. Any attempt at relaxing with a television show, YouTube video, or a scroll through Facebook will leave one inundated with political calls to action.
The 2020 election was unique as many Americans wondered if the election results would be a reflection of the votes cast. According to the study’s author Sankar Mukhopadhyay, “A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in September of 2020 found that the presidential election was a source of stress for 68% of Americans, substantially higher than the corresponding number for the 2016 election (52%). After the election, there were allegations of irregularity and malaise. The results were unprecedentedly contested, leading to chaos and uncertainty over two months culminating in an insurrection on January 6, 2021.”
Mukhopadhyay used data from the Household Pulse Survey (HPS) to further investigate the mental health experiences of Americans before and after the November 2020 presidential election. The HPS was conducted weekly and then bi-weekly in the United States and gathered a representative sample of responses. The HPS collects data on mental illness, mental health visits, prescription use, and socio-economic data. The survey was given using the same questions 40 times, providing a significant amount of comparable data.
Examining responses from the HPS, Mukhopadhyay discovered rates of anxiety increased 73% over baseline during the days leading up to the election. This decreased somewhat after Election Day but remained high and was at 55% over baseline the week of January 6, 2021.
Depression was 52% higher than baseline the week of the election and remained slightly over 50% through the week of the storming of the U.S. Capitol building. Likely in conjunction with the higher-than-normal anxiety and depression levels, mental health visits and prescription usage were up 29% the week of the election.
Mukhopadhyay also compared results from states voting Republican majority versus those with a Democratic majority and found that results were the same across voting patterns. This may indicate that the mental health effects are similar regardless of the political party or who is projected to win.
Mukhopadhyay acknowledged that the HPS did not ask respondents if they were voters, limiting conclusions that can be made about mental health concerns for those who do not participate in elections. In addition, the HPS did not ask about citizenship status, leaving us to wonder if non-citizens were more or less anxious about the election results.
Regardless of these limitations, this study provides a window into the election cycle’s potential consequences on modern Americans. Mukhodapadhay summarized his results this way, “This paper shows that closely fought elections can have significant adverse effects on mental health. We also show that in addition to the increased self-reported symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety and depression, the 2020 election also led to increased use of anxiety and depression-related mental health visits and prescription drug use.”
The study, “Elections have (health) consequences: Depression, anxiety, and the 2020 presidential election“, was authored by Sankar Mukhopadhyay.