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Voter Depression: How America’s Mental Health Crisis Hurts Democracy

Being too depressed to vote isn’t just common, it’s a long-standing tradition in U.S. politics

In the six months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, I called off my wedding and lost friends, furniture and a dog in the resulting breakup. I also somehow managed to move three times. When I impulsively started crashing with a new boyfriend after I caught my roommate stealing money from me, a friend generously offered up her place in L.A. for the month of November while she was traveling for work. Since my life in Brooklyn was such a dumpster fire, I took the temporary out. 

But there was a problem when it came to voting: I didn’t have an absentee ballot, and if I’m being honest, I’m not sure it would’ve made a difference anyway. I mostly failed to vote in 2016 because I was so depressed. Not that abstaining helped — after Trump won, it only made me feel like a bigger piece of shit. 

The thing is, being too depressed to vote is a long-standing tradition in American politics — and one that the wealthy and powerful rely on to keep turnout suppressed. “They benefit from poor mental health in the middle and lower classes and inadequate health-care systems just like they benefit from pitting poor people against each other on racial, political, economic and other grounds,” Texas-based clinical social worker and psychotherapist Patrick Turbiville tells me. “The more chaos at the lower echelons of society, the smoother ride it is in the upper ones.”

As a therapist, Turbiville sees a pretty clear connection between the ongoing mental-health crisis in the U.S. and voter suppression. This is in part due to “learned helplessness,” or a condition where people endure persistent traumas, failures and an overall sense of powerlessness for so long that they eventually give up and stop trying to change their circumstances. 

Coined by psychologists in 1967, learned helplessness was first demonstrated during a series of horrifying experiments on dogs. First, the dogs were put in one of two cages that were connected, and then given an electric shock; they unsurprisingly yelped and ran to the other side that didn’t hurt them. Next, the same shock was administered once more, only with a barrier so the dogs couldn’t escape. At first the dogs cried and tried to leave, but with more time, additional shocks and no way out, they stopped reacting altogether. If that isn’t sad enough, when researchers eventually removed the barrier between the cages and shocked them again, the dogs didn’t retreat to safety or respond at all anymore.

“The experiment is horrible, but it gives us a good idea about what it’s like to think about voting after being made to feel helpless repeatedly, often intergenerationally,” Turbiville explains. “But I think it applies in the short-term too. People were traumatized by the outcome in 2016, and then retraumatized every day since, with loud and clear messages that the guy in charge doesn’t care about you.”

Clinical psychologist Carla Manly agrees that depression can decrease voter turnout, but she’s careful to note that this is an understudied topic and that past research has mostly focused on how people with chronic depression tend to be less motivated to engage in political activity in general. “This makes sense given that those who suffer from major depression often struggle to attend to daily life activities like getting out of bed, going to work and showering,” she explains, adding that “non-essential activities, such as voting, are often overwhelming for those who suffer from ongoing depression.” 

Turbiville warns that external stressors on top of that — unemployment, grief and fear during a global pandemic — increases “the long-term physiological cost of maintaining a typical level of performance with inadequate resources.” “The nature of the stressor doesn’t matter,” he continues. “Over time compensating for living in an unstable world saps our resilience. And when our resilience gives out, depression is the next best coping mechanism.”

All of this, of course, raises an obvious contradiction: If we’re more depressed and anxious than ever before, why has voter turnout gone up? 

Although many of my clients are struggling with depression that’s been worsened by the pandemic and political environment, most of them have had an uptick in energy due to their interest in affecting some sort of change — if only by casting their vote on Election Day,” Manly tells me. “This is an interesting turn of events, yet it does make sense that having deeply compelling reasons to vote can be sufficiently motivating for someone suffering from depression.”

It’s also worth pointing out that the pandemic has made voting more accessible with early and mail-in options for those with depression. “Depression reduces participation in political acts that are the most physically demanding,” says Christopher Ojeda, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee. 

Ojeda is one of the few academics who has studied what he calls the “political cycle of depression,” where those suffering psychologically are less likely to vote and participate in politics, and therefore, the candidates elected are less likely to advocate for better mental health care, which makes everyone more depressed and less likely to vote. However, with the expansion of voting options around the country, he’s “hopeful that even those with severe symptoms of depression can participate because they no longer have to exert the energy to leave their home and go to the polls.” 

That said, he’s sure to add, “Given how depression reduces interest in politics and confidence in the ability to participate, it seems likely that the mobilization of new voters or occasional voters probably doesn’t include citizens with moderate or severe symptoms of depression.”

As for me, gradual, incremental improvements to my mental health — namely, going to therapy — helped restore my interest in voting. I still, though, feel great shame in having sat out the 2016 election (even though my vote in New York wouldn’t have changed the outcome). “I don’t think you should feel shame, but I understand how it would be hard to feel anything else given the situation,” Turbiville reassures me. 

Likewise, I suspect there are plenty of people who were too depressed to vote this year and who will have to shoulder that same feeling — especially given how close the race is. But take it from me, that’s only because the system is much sicker than they are.

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