The 2020 Presidential Election coverage left students in a state of anxiety and stress which proved to be unifying. UC San Diego attempted to neutralize some of the unease through conversation and planning.
The buzzword for the 2020 election was “doom-scrolling.” — the act of constantly refreshing Twitter or your favorite news outlet in order to see if the mail-in votes from Maricopa County had come in yet. With so many students getting information from social media, Election Night consisted of anxiety about the pace of the election just as much as the result.
Dating back to 2016, stress about the election was a phenomenon that would affect the performance and lives of students. A student’s identification and ideology played a role in how much stress a student had on election night.
According to a study done by Dr. Melissa J. Hagan for the Journal of American College Health, the stress about the results of the election had effects that would extend into the days following the election.
“One out of four students met criteria for clinically significant symptoms related to the election. The high level of event-related distress is concerning because elevated symptoms of event-related stress are predictive of future distress and subsequent PTSD diagnoses.”
On top of the ramifications for just any student, there is a specific concern for young adults that are involved in therapy. The compounding effect of having to deal with personal mental health issues and the stress of the election can further aggregate one’s mental health.
Those students who receive any sort of therapy or counseling showed setbacks in their progress according to a study done by J.S. McCarthy. Their findings illustrate the impact that this “doom-scrolling” can have on young adults processing their own inner challenges.
“We found that on measures of interpersonal conflict and problems with control in relationships, clients were making progress in therapy up until the election, then suffered setbacks in the period following the election, returning near to the point at which they entered treatment. On other types of relational problems, like non assertiveness, clients showed improvement with therapy. Tension in interpersonal relationships was especially heightened after the election among younger and REM individuals.”
The longer term effects studied during the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election places more focus on the election that recently passed.
A Thurgood Marshall College senior voiced how the election further amplified their mental health issue: anxiety. The student was left very traumatized from what happened and altered their appetite for politics.
“I have some pretty bad anxiety on a daily basis already, but it was really bad on election night. It was really rough to deal with the conspiracy theories and the incoming votes. I had no clue who would win and I still don’t even feel comfortable with the result right now. I learned my lesson this year, I won’t be watching election night coverage again.”
While the stress felt on election night from college students remained non-partisan, the current polarized political climate presents an amplification of concern for the future of the country. Students who are minorities and “Never-Trumpers” felt more anxiety about the outcome of the election than other students according to a study done by Dr. Lindsay Holt.
“We observed a high, and increasing, negative effect leading up to the election across all participants. Young adults who had negative perceptions of Trump’s ability to fulfill the role of president and/or were part of a non-dominant social group (i.e., women, ethnic/racial minority young adults) reported increased signs of stress before the election and on election night.”
Election Night took place on Nov. 4 this year. The race featured the incumbent President Trump facing off against the challenge from Delaware, former Vice President Joe Biden. The election took an unprecedented turn in March as the pandemic ramped up to an extent that made it clear the election this year would be different.
The pandemic specially adds a layer of unease due to the changes in the voting process and the months of isolation that students have already endured. The consequences of prolonged isolation are already well documented. The stakes of this specific election, according to Pew Research, were larger than past years.
“Currently, 83 percent of registered voters say it really matters who wins the presidency, up from 74 percent four years ago and the highest share saying this in two decades of Pew Research Center surveys. Nearly identical shares of registered voters in both parties say it really matters who prevails; other indicators of engagement with the election are equally high among Republican and Democratic voters.”
While anxiety persisted through the average American voter, Inside Higher Education released the results of a survey conducted surrounding college students and their stress levels about the election. The findings illustrate the heavier burden that students felt on a political level compared to even their own academics.
“In data collected this month, we found that the majority (75 percent) of college students indicated that they were “stressed out” by the current election. Students reported higher levels of sociopolitical stress compared to general psychological stress (based on responses to a widely used measure of perceived stress).”
The culmination of the factors intensify the actual night filled with “Key Race Alerts” as states are being called all night long. Certain states were called as soon as their polls closed due to the data showing that it was not possible for a candidate to win with the outstanding vote.
The pattern at the beginning of the night was similar with around 40 states being called by 10 p.m.. The outstanding states that remained were all swing states, meaning they would determine the winner of the election.
The main swing states were Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsalvania, Georgia, and Arizona. The states all featured results that showed Donald Trump winning the election with the outstanding mail-in ballot count dragging into the following days. The question for the rest of the night was whether or not there were enough votes for Biden to win.
The vote count remained in a constant state of flux as votes were being dumped from certain counties. A Roger Revelle College sophomore suffered from the unconventional counting of votes both mentally and academically.
“Election Night was horrible. I had a few assignments to complete, but I barely finished them with a subpar effort. I kept waiting for results from Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I couldn’t stop refreshing the Apple News app along with watching ABC News. I didn’t know whether to sleep or not after it was known that the mail in ballots wouldn’t be counted.”
Conspiracy theories were crafted during the time when people went to sleep claim that a variety of voter fraud was happening all over the country. From ballots being dropped off out of nowhere to more people than were registered, the theories ran awry on the internet.
UC San Diego planned for this type of information and prepared staff to handle it in a guide sent out to faculty members.
“Leading up to the election, there were concerted efforts to help alert voters about misinformation and disinformation campaigns. Unfortunately, these issues did not go away with the passing of the election. Help students navigate through the myths that have come up since the election.”
The school prepared for the conspiracy theories with a plan to ease students through what are myths and what is the truth.
Inside Higher Education proposed the creation of plans for schools to tackle the broader issue of stress when it comes to the election. Their ideas range from conversations for all types of challenges students may go through to allocating dedicated time for students to reach out to counselors.
“Outside the classroom, colleges and universities might consider facilitating workshops on effective communication and de-escalation techniques for difficult conversations about divisive issues. At times when socio-political events are especially salient — for example, this week before a national election — faculty and administrators might work together with clinical staff and counselors to provide programs, dialogues and spaces for students to meet with counselors.”
Revelle offered a space for students to talk about these results among other students or staff through two separate Zoom links. Revelle Student Affairs hosted one of meetings and a group of Revelle students moderated another Zoom conference call.
On top of the college-specific organization, the political science department held a Zoom panel with four political science professors: Dr. Pamela Ban, Dr. Seth Hill, Dr. Thad Kousser, and Dr. Tom Wong. The topic of the meeting centered around where the election stands two weeks removed from Election Night. The panel targeted the lingering anxiety from the various recounts in certain states and the lack of concession from President Trump.
The result of the 2020 election ended with President-Elect Joe Biden becoming the 46th President of the United States. There still remain legal challenges from the Trump campaign, but they seem unlikely to manifest into anything concrete.
While the country is seemingly breathing a sigh of relief, the aftermath of the election leaves lasting effects on the mental health of students. The seemingly never-ending cycle of votes being counted remains a negative experience for most students. The uneasiness even to this day shows how the birth of resentment towards the political process begins at college.
In today’s political climate, the one, true non-partisan statement remains that Election Night 2020 was not fun.
Art by Yui Kita for The UCSD Guardian.