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"It’s been extremely hard to concentrate": How the 2016 election affected students

January 31, 2024

You may feel stressed out about the current political climate—and it’s likely that your students do, too.

About 86% of students felt emotionally strained and 20% felt physically distressed by the 2016 presidential election, according to a study published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health (CAPMH).

Researchers from the University of Michigan surveyed 80 Americans between the ages of 14 to 24 at three points before and after the 2016 presidential election. Respondents answered open-ended questions via text message about their emotional and physical reaction to the election.

The majority of respondents reported physical or emotional distress during all three points, Melissa DeJonckheere and Tammy Chang, two lead authors of the study, write in The Conversation.

While the most commonly reported symptoms were anxiety and stress, some respondents also reported difficulty concentrating and nausea, the authors write. More than half of respondents continued to feel negative symptoms four months after the election.

White respondents were more likely to report negative symptoms than non-white respondents, and female participants were more likely to experience an emotional response than their male counterparts, DeJonckheere and Chang write.

As one 22-year old commented, “[i]t’s been extremely hard to concentrate.” Another 23-year old student admitted that the election “made [her] feel more overwhelmed with [her] responsibilities with school and work.” Other respondents reported fearing potential discrimination and violence.

Young people may be more vulnerable to the constant barrage of political news and hate speech because they’re “the most connected generation,” the authors write. Respondents may also feel anxious because the issues they report caring about, such as immigration and women’s rights, “have been the targets of political change,” they add.

To help students cope with the aftermath of the election, offer opportunities for reflection and recovery, recommends Liz Brown, a student affairs expert at EAB. On-call counselors and facilitated group dialogues can connect students with campus resources and like-minded peers to process how to move forward. It’s also important to make these same resources available to faculty, staff, and administrators—particularly those in student-facing positions, Brown writes.

As anxiety and depression continue to rise among students, campus leaders should create spaces for thoughtful discussion and encourage students to volunteer for causes they care about, DeJonckheere and Chang recommend (DeJonckheere/Chang, The Conversation, 2/14; CAPMH report, accessed 2/14).

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