Political Exposure and Mental Health

As a Politics student, not only do I spend every day studying political issues, I also write political articles for The Witness, such as this one. I am addicted to listening to political news on CNN, and my Twitter feed is full of political debates. However, when I stood back and considered this as objectively as possible, I began to consider what kind of toll a constant stream of political exposure has on your mental health.

My findings were, rather unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly in support of the conclusion that an excessive amount of political exposure, which is typically characterised by argumentative rhetoric, can have a profoundly negative influence on one’s mental health. One study from 2019 stressed the magnitude of the mental health crisis caused by politics, noting that, in America alone, tens of millions of people suffer detrimental social, emotional, and physical effects from political exposure. Given the, as yet, unyielding toxic political climate of the U.S., this data is congruent with the American experience of gun control, inadequate health care, and racial division.

This phenomenon is by no means exclusive to the U.S. In the month following the outcome of the Brexit referendum in 2016, a substantial increase in prescriptions for antidepressants was seen, with a jump of 13% compared to the average allocation of medication for that time of year. Subsequently, political turmoil is directly linked to the worsening of mental health. It is therefore logical that global crises including climate change, populism, coronavirus, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction have contributed to a widespread social outbreak of chronic political depression and severe stress. Multiple psychologists have noted the effects of this condition as those such as insomnia, headaches, tightness of the chest, and a dissociation from reality.

Another study identified a similar relation between political engagement and depression, noting that people who were interested in politics were, on average, eight percentage points more likely to be unhappy than those who were indifferent to politics. 24/7 social media and news coverage of political issues has made political engagement inescapable. This constant wave of political crises and issues has been gradually translating into the development of an additional crisis: the crisis of the deterioration of mental health. One woman from Chicago was so chronically anxious about the political climate that she needed to have two dental implants as a result of a teeth-grinding habit that she had used to cope with her political anxieties.

This chronic political stress needs to be taken seriously as it can have dangerous implications for physical health. Excessive stress shortens telomeres, which protect DNA, at a rate faster than their natural pace, and once they become too short the cell is vulnerable to damage and either becomes inflamed or dies. By accelerating this shortening process, one is more susceptible to medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Subsequently, the harmful effects of political exposure can generate overwhelming stress, which can lead to a reduced lifespan.

The implications of these various studies and findings is that, whilst political engagement is applaudable as a civic responsibility, our consumption of it must be regulated in order for us, particularly politics students, to be mentally and psychologically prepared to continue to invest our time in politics in a healthy and constructive manner. Given that as a generation we currently face a life inundated with extreme political crises, it is vital that we remember to actively carve out time to disconnect from politics and stimulate our minds with creative and soul-nourishing activities to bring some serenity back into the reality of the 21st century.

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