The 2016 Presidential election, which saw Donald Trump rise to power, was marked by some of the most divisive campaigns in American history. So much so that for some young adults, the experience was genuinely traumatic. According to psychologists, one in four young adults experienced symptoms similar to those seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.
Melissa Hagan, an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, noticed that in the months following the election, her students appeared significantly affected. Surveys conducted at the time also confirmed some part of the population experienced psychological stress in the aftermath of the election.
Looking to put a finger on how much stress the 2016 election caused, Hagan and colleagues, enlisted 769 students who were taking a psychology course at Arizona State University. The participants included a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as religious and political identities.
Using a standard psychological assessment tool called the Impact of Event Scale (IES), researchers surveyed how many of the students were impacted by the election in such a way that it might lead to diagnosable PTSD.
According to the results, 25% of the students crossed the PTSD threshold. Another frightening result was that the average score of students was comparable to those obtained by witnesses of a mass shooting seven months after the event.
“What we were interested in seeing was, did the election for some people constitute a traumatic experience? And we found that it did for 25 percent of young adults,” Hagan said in a statement.
Researchers also determined that 37.2% of students were completely dissatisfied with the election results and 18.5% were completely satisfied — everyone else was in the middle. When the researchers gauged the extent to which the students were upset by the results, they found that 39% of students were extremely upset, while 28.5% reported not feeling upset at all. About 24.2% of the students said their relationships were impacted negatively by the election, 10.4% said there was some negative impact, and 65% experienced no impact at all.
Some students were more affected than others. Black and nonwhite Hispanic participants scored higher on the PTSD assessment than their white counterparts. Females scored nearly 45% higher than males, and Democrats scored more than two and a half times higher than Republicans, the authors reported in the Journal of American College Health.
It’s not clear whether the traumatic effects of the 2016 elections will carry on over the long-term, as the psychological assessment of the students only happened once. The high prevalence of PTSD symptoms, however, should warrant school mental health staff to be more mindful of the political environment which their students are experiencing, apart from the usual stressors. And given the level of stress measured by the researchers, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see some of the negative effects on people’s mental health last for years.
As to what made this election particularly traumatic, the shock of Donald Trump’s win and the hate-centered divisive narrative seem to have played important roles.
“There was a lot of discourse around race, identity and what makes a valuable American. I think that really heightened stress for a lot of people,” said Hagan.