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Major political events can affect people’s mood, a study of young doctors finds

This isn’t the first study to report that politics can have an effect on our mental health, but it is one of the few to trace that effect to specific political events.

Donald Trump being sworn in
Donald Trump being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on January 20, 2017.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Major political events of recent years, especially the 2016 presidential election and subsequent inauguration, were associated with significant changes in mood among young U.S. doctors, according to a study published online Monday in The BMJ.

These mood shifts — which fell downward after the latest presidential election and inauguration — tended to be greater among women doctors and smaller among doctors who lived in the South, the study also found.

This isn’t the first study to report that politics can have an effect on our mental health, but it is one of the few to trace that effect to specific political events.

The study actually came about by accident, as its authors, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan, explain in a first-person article that accompanies the study.

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At time of the 2016 presidential election, “we had already been collecting daily mood data for years as part of the Intern Health Study, a nationwide study of stress and depression in first year medical residents,” the researchers write. “So what did we find? Right after the election we noted a dramatic drop in mood among interns — larger than anything we had ever seen in the history of the study. In fact, this decline was fourfold greater than any other day we had tracked, with women experiencing double the mood drop as men.”

“This suggested to us that young physicians were deeply engaged with and affected by the election, even during the high demands and time constraints of a strenuous year of internship,” they add. “This also illustrated the extent to which the 2016 election was experienced as deeply personal and distressing for so many young women in medicine.”

Study details

The researchers decided to take a closer look at the effects of contemporary politics on young doctors’ moods. They started with data they had collected from 2,345 first-year doctors who participated in the Intern Health Study between 2016 and 2018. The interns represented 12 medical specialties at more than 300 institutions across the country.

Each evening at 8 p.m., the study’s participants had answered a question sent to them through a smartphone app: “On a scale of 1-10, how was your mood today?” The question has been validated in other research as an accurate way of measuring mood.

Next, using and Google trends, the researchers identified the most influential recent political and nonpolitical events that occurred in the United States since the 2016 presidential election. (They kept the election in the study, too.)

The most influential political events were the following:

  • the presidential election,
  • the presidential inauguration,
  • the Muslim travel ban,
  • the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act,
  • the signing of a presidential executive order to prevent the separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border,
  • the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation,
  • the presidential deployment of active military troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to meet a “migrant caravan” from South America,
  • the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, and
  • the failure of Congress to pass a budget that included $5 billion to fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

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And here are the most influential nonpolitical events:

  • Super Bowl LI,
  • the August 2018 solar eclipse,
  • Hurricane Irma,
  • the Las Vegas mass shooting,
  • the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida,
  • the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle,
  • Hurricane Florence, and
  • California’s Camp Fire.

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Key findings

The researchers calculated the interns’ average mood for the week after each event and then compared it to their average mood during the preceding four weeks. They found statistically significant changes in mood for six of the nine political events.

The largest drops in mood occurred after the 2016 presidential election and subsequent inauguration. Those declines were greater than that seen when the young doctors started their internship — a notoriously stressful and mood-dampening period — but not as great as the declines reported by those who developed depression during their internships.

Two other political events were associated with smaller, but still notable, drops in the mood: the Muslim travel ban and the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. And an increase in mood was linked to two of the political events: the signing of the presidential executive order to prevent the separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border and the failure to pass legislation to spend $5 billion on the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

No change in mood — upward or downward — was observed, however, with the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the deployment of troops to the Mexico border to meet a “migrant caravan,” or the 2018 midterm elections. The same was true of all eight nonpolitical events included in the study.

Women doctors were particularly affected by the 2016 election results. Their mood after the election and subsequent inauguration fell twice as low as that of their male peers.

“This finding suggests that the political discourse surrounding issues of gender and sexism throughout the presidential campaign may have disproportionately affected women,” the researchers write in their study. “The gender difference may have also reflected a greater disappointment among women interns that the US did not elect its first female president.”

The study also found that doctors in southern states experienced smaller declines in mood after the 2016 presidential election and 2017 presidential inauguration than those living in other regions of the country.

Other findings

The study comes with caveats. It is an observational study, and thus can show only a correlation between political events and shifts in mood, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship. In addition, the study involved only first-year doctors. Its results may not be applicable, therefore, to other doctors — or to other populations.

Still, the findings are intriguing. They suggest, as the study’s authors point out, that today’s young doctors — like other young voters and those with postgraduate education — tend to identify as liberal leaning.

That observation “supports previous work showing a strong left shift in political affiliation among physicians over the past 25 years,” the researchers write. “With Republican campaign pledges to repeal the Affordable Care Act and restrict women’s access to reproductive health services domestically and abroad, these young physicians may have been especially concerned about the healthcare consequences of a Republican presidency.”

The study’s findings also underscore previous research that has shown contemporary politics is taking a toll on Americans’ psychological health.

“Acute media exposure to severe violence or disasters, such as the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, has been shown to negatively affect mental and physical health and even result in symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” the researchers explain. “Our findings suggest that, in recent years, repeated long term exposure to emotionally arousing news can also have psychological implications.”

“While not as severe as PTSD, these emotional ups and downs may still add to the mental burden of young US physicians,” they add, “who are already under high levels of stress and at increased risk for mental health issues.

But it’s not only young physicians. As I reported in Second Opinion earlier this year, researchers recently found that the country’s current political situation causes almost two in five American adults considerable stress, and about one in five Americans say they have lost sleep or been depressed as a result.

FMI: The study appears online in The BMJ’s December — or “Christmas” — issue, which, as its editors point out, publishes research papers on more “light-hearted” subject matters than during the rest of the year. Studies in the Christmas issue must still, however, meet the journal’s “high standards of novelty, methodological rigour, reporting transparency, and readability as apply in the regular issue,” the editors stress.