2016 U.S. Election: Some College Students Suffered PTSD-Like Symptoms After 'Traumatic' Campaign

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Students at the University of Chicago participate in a walk-out and rally to protest President-elect Donald Trump on November 15, 2016, in Chicago. The 2016 U.S. election was so stressful that some young adults experienced symptoms similar to those often seen in people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The 2016 U.S. election was so stressful that some young adults experienced symptoms after the event similar to those often seen in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a study published in the Journal of American College Health.

A team of researchers led by Melissa Hagan, an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, wanted to understand what kind of impact the election had on people's lives after noticing that many of their own students seemed deeply affected by the campaign.

"I taught two classes the day after the election; one undergraduate class and one graduate class," Hagan told Newsweek. "In both classes, students were visibly upset, with some crying. My colleagues and I were also aware polls and surveys reported on in the media were showing that many Americans rated the election and the political environment as a significant source of stress.

"We were interested in whether for some people, that level of stress was high enough that it would be considered 'clinically significant' (abnormally high levels of intrusive thoughts and avoidance behaviors, for example), like symptoms you might see in individuals following a traumatic event," she said.

For their study, the researchers surveyed 769 students enrolled in psychology courses at Arizona State University (ASU) between January and February 2017. The students came from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, religions, and social classes, and represented different political identities.

"We wanted to make sure that the study was conducted in an institution with some diversity of political opinion," Hagan said. "We chose ASU because it is one of the largest universities in the country with individuals from wide ranging backgrounds, including diverse political party affiliations."

The team asked each of the participants to fill out a psychological assessment called the “Impact of Event Scale (IES),” which contained questions relating to the 2016 election.

"The IES is a screening instrument that has been used to assess for potential PTSD-like symptoms," Hagan said. "It specifically assesses for intrusive thoughts (i.e. thoughts or feelings that keep happening even when you don’t want them to) and avoidance (taking action to avoid reminders of an event, avoiding thinking about it, avoiding talking about it, etc)."

However, she stressses that the scale is not sufficient to make an assesment of whether someone meets the criteria for PTSD, which would require looking at other symptoms not included in this version of the test.

"In addition, to meet criteria for PTSD one must have been exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence," Hagan noted.

"That said, many Americans have immigrated from Mexico or have family from Mexico, and the media coverage of potential policies (and eventually real policies) that involved building a wall could be perceived as a threat to the life they currently know. Moreover, the election of a candidate who was on record (audiotape) describing sexual assault could have been triggering for women and men who had been sexually assaulted in the past."

The results of the IES showed that 25 percent of the students surveyed showed clinically significant levels of stress. In fact, the average stress score was comparable to those of people who had witnessed mass shootings, when assessed seven months after the event.

Furthermore, it’s clear that certain groups were more affected than others. For example, black and non-white Hispanic students displayed higher stress scores than their white colleagues. Gender, political affiliation and religion also appeared to have an influence. Females scored 45 percent higher than males, while Democrats scored more than two and a half times higher than Republicans. Those who identified as non-Christian also reported being significantly affected.

"About 25 percent of students endorsed intrusion and avoidance symptoms related to the election that were above the threshold that is considered “clinically significant”—meaning that previous studies have found that people scoring in this range have a higher likelihood of developing PTSD," Hagan said. "The fewest symptoms were seen in students identifying as being part of the 'middle class'—males, members of the Republican Party and Christian.

"Students with the highest symptoms were more likely to identify as Democrat, low to middle working class, non-white, and female," she said. "However, when all these demographic factors were considered together, symptoms appeared to be most closely related with party affiliation, sex, religion, and perceived impact of the election on close relationships. The latter finding is particularly important given that we know that supportive close relationships are critical for mental health."

The researchers believe that the surprise result and the divisive tone of the campaign may have contributed to high-stress levels in the students.

"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," Hagan said in a statement.

Despite the findings, the study has a number of limitations. For example, the students only took the assessment once, so it didn’t reveal anything about the long-term impact on psychological health.

"Significant limitations of the study include the fact that we did not assess for other stressful experiences which may have unknowingly contributed to student distress in addition to the election," Hagan said.

"There are often many different sources of emotional distress; even if a participant links their distress to a political event, they may be discounting other events in their life that are equally distressing. Also, it is difficult to know whether it is the event itself or discussion of the event (in the media and in the community) that might lead to emotional distress.

"We also did not assess distress at multiple time-points, so we have no way of knowing if it continued many months after the election," she said. "In addition, the ethnicity of participants does not reflect the U.S. as a whole—we had a very small number of African-American students (this is reflective, however, of the university demographics)."

Nevertheless, the paper suggested that mental health professionals who work with students should take into account the political environment when dealing with cases.

"University counselors should be aware that young adults can experience significant emotional distress in the wake of a national event," Hagan said. "Especially given that the midterm elections are coming up, it may be helpful for counselors to keep these findings in mind."

This article has been updated to include additional comments from Melissa Hagan.

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