ROCHESTER, Minn. — If you think something that you saw on the news about politics makes you sick, it's probably truer than you realize.
As if it wasn't obvious enough, politics is making people sick. Or at least convinced that politics is to blame for feeling sick, anyway. That's the finding of a new study, the first to ask what close involvement in political news and activity means for respondents on their sense of health and well-being.
The paper titled "Friends, relatives, sanity, and health: The costs of politics," published Wednesday, Sept. 25, in the journal PLOS ONE, documents an assortment of negative emotional, social and physical consequences of political engagement among a nationally representative sample of 800 respondents polled over five days in March 2017. The 32-question survey probed participants on their engagement with politics and their perception of its effects on physical and mental health, regretted behaviors and social and lifestyle costs. It concluded that "tens of millions of American adults perceive politics as extracting significant social, psychological and even physical health costs."
"Our numbers suggest that 40 percent of American adults say politics stresses them out," said Kevin Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "A quarter of American adults say that politics has led them to hate somebody. A fifth of American adults say that politics has caused them to think seriously about moving. One in twenty say that it's caused them financial problems. One in twenty say it's led them to consider thoughts of suicide. It's one survey only, so I don't want to over-interpret it. But if our numbers are anywhere near accurate, it's almost like politics is a public health problem."
Smith said the study advances on the observation that America is politically divided. The new research, he said, asks what our divisions mean for health.
"This really isn't about polarization," he said. "What it is looking at is the consequences of polarization. As far as we know, this is the first comprehensive look at how people perceive getting involved in politics affects their social, psychological and even physical health. The results we found, at least to me, were kind of eye-opening. Just the fact that politics seems to be having this broad negative effect on so many people."
Among the study's projected hard numbers is the extrapolated finding that "94 million people believe they have been stressed by politics, 44 million believe they have lost sleep, 28.5 million that their physical health has been adversely affected," and with the caveat that the event is less common, "...11 million that politics led them to consider suicide."
The timing of the study raises its own set of questions. The survey was given in March of 2017, two months into the Trump presidency. "It may be that the costs of politics were unusually acute" at the time, the paper argued, "just two months after the inauguration of an extremely polarizing president."
Smith doesn't know if his study effectively measured just the mood and well-being of Americans opposed to the current administration, or if it revealed something about respondents across the political spectrum.
"There is clearly an ideological and partisan relationship in these findings," he said. "If you lean left, we found, you are more likely to say you experienced these negative psychological, social and physical health costs of politics. Is this just an effect of the Trump era on the political left? The data kind of tell that story. [But] we don't have a comparative survey from, say, the Obama administration. ... We don't know whether this is an artifact of the times or something systematic that runs through different eras in politics.
"I'd be a little reluctant to say tuning out politics is a good thing," Smith said. "Democratic governance brings undeniable benefits to its citizens," as his paper argued. At the same time, "the contentious discussion of issues and candidates that surrounds them bring undeniable costs."