Major Political Events Depress Young Doctors' Moods

By Linda Carroll

December 12, 2019

(Reuters Health) - Major U.S. political events, such as the 2016 presidential election and inauguration, were linked with declines in the moods of first-year residents, a new study suggests.

In surveys of more than 2,000 interns, researchers found that political events were more likely than non-political events to be linked with a drop in mood, researchers reported in The BMJ.

The biggest drop in mood followed the presidential election of 2016 and the inauguration that followed it, researchers say. Female interns experienced a bigger impact - twice that of their male colleagues.

"Following the 2016, election there were a lot of anecdotal reports in the media about young people feeling stressed," said the study's lead author, Elena Frank, director of the Intern Health Study at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "We were in a unique position to study reactions to the election and events that followed. And our findings in young folks just provide some scientific backing for those feelings."

In general, Frank said, "political events are having a more profound impact on people in comparison to non-political events. Maybe it's the pervasiveness of social media making it impossible to ignore them, or an increasing polarization that's leading to an emotional rollercoaster."

The ongoing Intern Health Study prospectively assesses stress and depression during the first year of residency training in the U.S.

For the current analysis, Frank and her colleagues focused on data from 2,345 interns who participated during three academic years: 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19. The group included 1,301 women and 1,044 men.

During the internship year, participants responded daily to the following single-question measure of mood: "On a scale of 1-10, how was your mood today?"

Frank and her colleagues then identified the eight political events and eight non-political events in the U.S. that had the greatest impacts since the 2016 presidential election, based on a History Channel summary of notable 2017 and 2018 events. For each event, the researchers queried Google Trends to determine the date of peak public interest in the U.S.

Political events included: the presidential election, presidential inauguration, Muslim travel ban, failure to repeal the ACA, the executive order preventing separation of families at the southern border, Kavanaugh court confirmation, migrant caravan, midterm elections, and the failure to pass a budget providing funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Non-political events included: Super Bowl LI, solar eclipse, Hurricane Irma, Las Vegas shooting, shooting at Parkland high school, royal wedding, Hurricane Florence, and California wildfires.

Overall, the interns reported notable changes in mood following six of the nine political events, with the largest coming after the 2016 presidential election. Statistically significant declines in mood also occurred after the inauguration, the travel ban, and the Supreme Court confirmation hearing. The researchers also found a slight uptick in mood following the executive order to keep migrant families together, and the failure to pass a spending bill with money for the border wall.

"I'm hoping this means that we're moving toward being more politically engaged," Frank said. "Historically there's been a debate about how much of a role doctors should play. But it seems with so many important health implications, doctors should take a stand for the wellbeing of the American public."

SOURCE: The BMJ, online December 9, 2019.