But I’m also interested in the role politics plays in the disastrous state of American mental health, which is one of the overarching stories in the country right now. For all our division, there’s a pretty broad consensus that the country is, psychologically, in an awful place. According to a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll, almost nine in 10 registered voters believe there’s a mental health crisis in the United States. The crisis expresses itself in all sorts of ways: in rising rates of youth suicide, record overdoses, random acts of street violence, monthslong waiting lists for children’s therapists, mask meltdowns, QAnon.
I’ve long thought that widespread psychological distress — wildly intensified by the pandemic — contributes to the derangement of American politics. But maybe the causality works the other way, too, and the ugliness of American politics is taking a toll on the psyche of the citizenry.
Smith first surveyed a sample of around 800 people about politics and mental health in March 2017. As he wrote in a 2019 paper, he found fairly high levels of affliction: Besides the 40 percent who said they were stressed out about politics, a fifth or more reported “losing sleep, being fatigued, or suffering depression because of politics.” As many as a quarter of respondents reported self-destructive or compulsive behaviors, including “saying and writing things they later regret,” “making bad decisions” and “ignoring other priorities.”
At the time, he thought he might just be capturing the shock of Trump’s election. But his next two surveys, in October and November of 2020, showed similar or greater levels of misery. Now, those were also moments of febrile political activity; perhaps if Smith had surveyed people in 2018 or 2019, he’d have found less political angst. Nevertheless, his findings suggest that there are tens of millions of Americans who’ve felt themselves ground down by our political environment.
In some ways, this is surprising. Most people aren’t political junkies. The majority of American adults aren’t on Twitter, which tends to drive political news microcycles. Even in an election year, more people watched the 30th season of “Dancing With the Stars” than the most successful prime-time shows on Fox News, the country’s most-watched cable news network. As the political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan wrote in The New York Times, most Americans — “upward of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all.”