Are college students “snowflakes” — triggered, traumatized and all together too delicate for the real world?
Or are they apathetic — so unconcerned that they can’t be bothered to purchase stamps to send in their absentee ballots?
The two characterizations of young Americans are in conflict, observed Melissa Hagan, an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. Her research has led her to believe that neither captures what's going on in the minds of young people. Their intense reaction to political events runs contrary to the charge of apathy, she said, while the emotional trauma they report should not be dismissed as hypersensitivity.
With a team of researchers, she surveyed 769 introductory psychology students at Arizona State University in January and February 2017, asking about their satisfaction with the 2016 election, whether they were upset about the outcome and whether the results of the race had affected their close relationships.
The results were published Monday in an article, “Event-related clinical distress in college students: Responses to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election,” in the Journal of American College Health, a bimonthly, peer-reviewed public health journal. The article finds that 25 percent of students had “clinically significant event-related distress,” which it argues can predict future distress as well as diagnoses of PTSD, commonly associated with veterans and defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it.”
The research speaks to the personal toll of partisan battles, and it offers insight into the perspective of young Americans coming to political consciousness in the era of President Donald Trump.
Hagan, the article's lead author, said she believed it was the first of its kind examining an election's psychological impact on college students. She was motivated to conduct the study by what she saw in her classes the day after Trump clinched the presidency.
Her students were "visibly upset," she recalled in an interview. "Some were even crying." They told her that they were scared and anxious about policies that had been discussed on the campaign trail, she said, as well as about the elevation of "a candidate who had an audio recording of him describing sexual assault."
The analysis reveals that women, racial minorities, people from working and lower-middle social classes, Democrats, non-Christians and sexual minorities reported significantly more election-related distress. Accounting for connections among various factors, the most useful predictors of stress were sex, political party, religion and perceived impact of the election on close relationships — more so than race and social class. Controlling for party affiliation, other demographic factors still influenced stress symptoms. In other words, Hagan said, it wasn’t just a case of sore losers.
The findings are in line with those of related surveys, such as a poll conducted in January 2017 by the American Psychological Association indicating that two-thirds of Americans were stressed about the future of the country. Seventy-six percent of Democrats said they were stressed, compared to 59 percent of Republicans - still a majority. The previous August, the APA added a question about the outcome of the election to its annual survey on stress to reflect what was on the minds of clients seeking counseling.
The 2016 election itself was not a trauma, Hagan said. The term implies the threat or actual experience of personal injury, and usually applies to events like mass shootings or armed conflict.
“But what’s underneath that is helplessness and fear,” she said. “We can think about the election campaign — with discussions of deportation and how women are treated, for instance, and the extreme language used by both candidates — as driving these experiences of intrusion,” Hagan said. “Young people can’t stop thinking about it. It interferes with their concentration.”
"Or else," she added, "there's avoidance, where they don't want to talk about it."
Most notable, Hagan said, was “the extent of the clinical impairment” — the proportion of students whose symptoms rose to the level that could entail risk of subsequent PTSD. At the same time, she said, the accounts of individual survey subjects demonstrate why this would be the case. One of the students, Hagan said, was fearful that her parents were going to be deported.
It would be wrong, she said, "to turn to that person and say, 'toughen up.'"
Hagan rejected the notion that distress was a sign of emotional weakness, even when political events don't reach young people directly. The fear can still be real, she said, pointing to the more recent example of the dramatic accounts of children being separated from their parents at the country's southern border.
The data does not spell out the long-term consequences for mental or physical health of election-induced distress. Nor does it establish the cause of the trauma-like symptoms. But the researchers speculated that "issues of identity and social inequality prominent in election-related rhetoric" played a role, as they wrote. "Repeated exposure to visual stimuli and words relevant to one's identity, when perceived to be threatening or priming negative stereotypes regarding social group membership, can negatively impact psychological well-being."
One of the conclusions that Hagan drew from the results was that young people, contrary to prevailing narratives, "are paying attention."
"Often there is a criticism of individuals in their early 20s, that they are these special snowflakes waiting for things to happen to them," she said. "Young people are not just waiting. They're absorbing and observing, and hopefully that will not result in clinical impairment but rather inspire them to seek out and fid ways to take care of themselves."
Next month's election will test that hope. Turnout among young Americans has been strikingly low, especially in midterm elections, according to Pew analysis.
There is some reason to believe that young people could outperform expectations, though. An online survey of 3,633 college students conducted in September by College Reaction, a polling and news site, found that nearly 50 percent say they would “definitely” vote in November, compared to 18 percent participation in 2014. Seventy-seven percent said they were registered to vote.