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25 percent of college students report stress over 2016 presidential election: Study

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BY: DR. COLETTE POOLE-BOYKIN

(NEW YORK) — When your student comes home for the holiday, you may want to ask them about the stressors of college life: classes, significant others, funds, and the state of politics.

In times past, we have assumed that politics have little to do with our personal lives, however, college healthcare providers are finding that many students are in a significant amount of distress regarding the 2016 presidential election and related events.

“Widespread discontent with both candidates, the unanticipated election outcome, and heightened intergroup conflict may have heightened emotional distress following the election,” according to study from San Francisco State University.

Subsequently, the researchers sought to study the perceived impact of the 2016 election on close relationships, the prevalence of election-related distress symptoms, and the demographics (race, gender, religion) of those who reported more symptoms.

The study took 769 college students enrolled in an introductory psychology course and had them fill out a questionnaire two to three months following the presidential election in November 2016. The questionnaire was a validated psychological tool used to evaluate the self-reported stress-related symptoms following an event. Some of the symptoms the tool asked about were avoidance and intrusions associated with the stressor.

What did the researchers find?

The overall result was that 25 percent of students questioned reported clinically significant stress symptoms related to the election. This means that these students should talk to their doctors about their symptoms.

The highest levels of election-related stress were found in African-Americans and those classified as sexual minorities. The two groups that demonstrated the lowest levels of reported election-related stress were those who reported being registered Republicans and males.

Regarding close relationships, nearly 25 percent reported that the election had a negative impact on their close relationships. Unfortunately, the data was not able to say exactly why the groups with most stress were stressed, but the researchers offered their speculations.

“We speculate that issues of identity and social inequality prominent in election-related rhetoric may have been particularly salient to these groups of students,” according to the researchers. They also went on to share that the perception of negative rhetoric from media and online sources could have had a health-relevant psychological toll.

Though the study does not show if this pattern of election distress is different from previous elections, it does successfully imply that clinicians must recognize the impact of politics on a student’s mental health as these students are at increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mood disorders. Hopefully, awareness of topics such as these makes it easier for students to seek help when needed and campus wellness programs to provide care for a variety of stress-related complaints.

Dr. Colette Poole-Boykin is a child psychiatry fellow with Yale Child Study Center and a part of the ABC Medical Unit.

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