This Election Will End. The Mental Damage May Not

Americans unnerved by the 2016 campaign may need help dealing with its consequences.

Guests attend a watch party for the last presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at a bar in Washington D.C.

Photographer: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

More than half of Americans are experiencing election-related stress comparable to that often attributed to work, money, or the economy, the American Psychological Association has said. And while the good news is the presidential contest will end next week, the bad news is that because of the ferocity of the campaign, the mental damage may linger. And for some groups, it may get even worse—depending on who wins.

There’s always disillusionment and anger when a presidential candidate loses. George W. Bush’s narrow victory over John Kerry in 2004 inflamed Democrats still angry over Bush’s first election, via the U.S. Supreme Court, four years earlier. That 5-4 ruling doomed the candidacy of Democratic Vice President Al Gore, capping what was arguably the most tempestuous U.S. presidential election in modern times. Until now.

 

election-stress-chart

The hope is that once this election is over, and the constant barrage of negativity via television, radio, and mobile phone ends, things may return to some semblance of normal. But not everyone is so optimistic.

“There’s going to be tremendous alienation by all the people who lose on Nov. 9,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. In the event of a Donald Trump victory, many Hispanics, blacks, and Muslims are likely to see his election as a popular affirmation of the Republican’s most negative characterizations of each group during the course of the campaign.  

“It’s a sampling of human opinion, how we vote,” Humphreys said. So for Mexican Americans, he explained, a Republican victory would put a national imprimatur on Trump’s statement, during a speech launching his campaign, that immigrants coming to the U.S. from Mexico are rapists and drug dealers. 

More than half of the Hispanic community reported experiencing election-related stress in the survey by the APA last month. For undocumented immigrants, those fears are likely to be even more acute, said Susan Macios, director of the Family Counseling Clinic at the Hispanic Family Center of Southern New Jersey in Camden, N.J. “Our Mexican population has been expressing anxiety about deportation,” she said, adding that a Trump victory could send many of them into hiding. 

The “election cycle has unleashed negativity and somehow given license to be mean and hateful. It has left deep scars on our society,” says Farha Abbasi, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and the managing editor for Journal of Muslim Mental Health. Verbal and physical attacks on Muslims, and even on people mistaken for Muslims, have caused mental trauma for an entire segment of American citizenry, she said. 

report from Georgetown University (PDF) found that hate crimes against Muslims have spiked over the course of the presidential election. “We’re not imagining it,” Abbasi said. “It’s happening.”

Anxieties run deep as people of all ages and levels of religious observance find their loyalties being questioned, she said, pointing to the unvarnished bigotry triggered in some quarters by Trump’s candidacy. “Even in a really highly educated environment, there are comments that make people uneasy,” said Abbasi. No matter who wins, she says, that bell cannot be un-rung.

A victory by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, shouldn’t be mistaken for a quick fix of the stress and doubt suffered by minority groups in this campaign. “Whenever Bill Clinton talks about how Muslims have to cooperate in countering extremism, it says that there is something inherently wrong with Muslims,” Abbasi said. “Just because I’m Muslim doesn’t put extra responsibility on me.”

Even in very pro-Trump parts of rural America, where mental healthcare is usually hard to come by, the Republican’s words have struck a particularly painful chord for victims of sexual assault. Sallie Richards, a clinical psychologist at Rural Mental Health Associates Inc. in Oil City, Penn., said “all of the statements, and the debates, and the ads that continue to play the audio clips of him speaking in a sexually assaultive manner, brought up past things that never came up in therapy before.” While she treats mostly women, the men she sees, Richards says, aren’t experiencing that same kind of personalized stress. “They’re just worried about what their future is going to be like,” she says, “a lot of ‘nothing good is going to come of this.’” She mentions issues like the Affordable Care Act, abortion and gun rights as concerns.

If Trump loses, it may take a psychological toll on his most fervent supporters, exacerbating feelings of grievance and alienation among many whites who flocked to him, said Humphreys, whose work has focused on remote areas of West Virginia, his own home state. “If Trump loses, they will feel like, ‘I've been thrown away,’” he said.

Richards agreed. “If Hillary takes the presidency, there’s going to be a lot of anger, frustration, and fear,” she said.

For both sides, at least the uncertainty—barring a 2000-like finish—will be gone come Nov. 9. Whoever wins, Lynn Bufka, associate executive director of practice research at the APA, said “there will be some degree of relief because of the onslaught of negative campaigning for both federal and local elections will presumably disappear.”

“Uncertainty is stressful,” said William Eaton, a professor of mental health at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “There will be a large proportion of the population that will be relieved that it’s over.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE