A New Paper Breaks Down the Health Effects of the 2016 Election

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Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

By now, you may have already heard the grim statistics behind what some have termed the “Trump effect”: All across the country, hate crimes are on the rise. In 2016, they increased by 62 percent in Washington, D.C., 50 percent in Philadelphia, 24 percent in New York City, and 20 percent in Chicago, according to data presented last month at the U.S. Department of Justice Hate-Crime Summit. Halfway into 2017, they’ve risen by 160 percent in Chicago, 41 percent in Seattle, 40 percent in New York, and 21 percent in Washington, D.C.

You’ve probably heard the stories, too, of what happens when those numbers are translated into real life: verbal and physical harassment of immigrants and Muslims, racially motivated violence from white supremacists, Jewish community centers targeted with bomb threats and Jewish cemeteries desecrated. Schools in particular have seen an increase in the use of slurs and other derogatory language and incidents involving swastikas since the election.

For the people on the receiving end of all this, the past several months have been mentally and emotionally draining — and research suggests their health may have taken a hit as well. In a paper recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard University scholar David R. Williams explained how major events like elections can impact health beyond just the health policy of the winner.

“Events linked to the recent presidential campaign and election have given rise to fear and anxiety in many Americans,” Williams wrote. Such events “can have negative health effects on people who have been direct targets of what they perceive as hostility or discrimination and on individuals and communities who feel vulnerable because they belong to a stigmatized, marginalized, or targeted group.”

Studies have found that the toxic stress of discrimination can lead to a vast array of health problems, including increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and the common cold, and living in a community with high levels of racial prejudice has been linked to an increased risk of death.

It’s not just outright discrimination itself that can harm health; even the fear of discrimination can also be detrimental, as can exposure to media coverage of racial or ethnic hostility. “Stress adversely affects health not only through actual experiences,” Williams noted, “but also because of rumination, vigilance, and worry over potential exposures.”

In an October 2016 blog post, Sandro Galea, the dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health, lamented that “given all we know about how racism can undermine health—its corrosive effect on communities, and the damage it can do when it is codified into law at the political level—it is difficult not to wonder how less sick we would be had some of the more progressive, racially egalitarian policies of Reconstruction been allowed to continue.”

While policies such as the Muslim “ban” and anti-transgender legislation may seem to affect only a small number of people directly, Galea explained in an interview, they “create a shift in culture away from pro-social behavior that promotes our collective well-being … The health of populations rests in no small part on our collective behaviors, influenced by shared social norms.”

Simply put, he said, “marginalization equals poor health.” This may be especially true for undocumented immigrants, who have to cope with both the fear of harassment and the fear of deportation, which has left many  of them afraid to access public services.

Elections don’t always have a detrimental effect, though; as Williams noted, an election can sometimes even influence people’s health for the better. The opposite of fear? That would be the positive health effects of hope, which can act as a buffer against the negative impacts of stress and even ward off depression. Research has linked hope to improved quality of life and better physical and mental health.

“Campaigns that give voice to the disenfranchised have been shown to have positive but short-term effects on health,” Williams noted in his paper. “Such associations have been observed among black South Africans at the time of Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election, among black Americans during Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, and among Hispanic and black Americans when Barack Obama was nominated for President in 2008.”

So how have the positive health effects of hope played out since the 2016 presidential election? “Increases in psychological well-being, pride, and hope for the future are likely to be evident among Donald Trump supporters,” Williams wrote.

And that’s true even though his policies may end up deporting their loved ones and revoking their health coverage. As Galea put it: “Even for those that feel ‘victorious’ in this election, when it comes to exclusionary policies, it’s going to hurt all of us.”

A New Paper Breaks Down the Health Effects of the Election