Can Debates Lead to Clinical Depression?

Experts told us how candidates' performances might affect supporters' mental health -- and sway elections.

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(The Root) — It is not exactly a surprise that Obama supporters were less than happy with their candidate’s performance after the first presidential debate. Many talked about the night as though their favorite sports team had let them down.

“I feel like the Red Sox just blew a lead,” Greg Atkins, a die-hard Red Sox and Obama fan based in Brooklyn, N.Y., said to his wife after the president’s debate debacle. And much like the melancholy that accompanies the loss of a favorite baseball, basketball, football or hockey team, many Obama fans found themselves grappling with feelings of dismay and disappointment after his debate “loss.” It’s a feeling some Romney supporters might be feeling after the final presidential debate.

But a question that has rarely been explored is whether the performance of a particular candidate can affect supporters so deeply as to lead to actual depression. According to interviews with various mental-health experts and experts on fan behavior, the short answer is yes.

“There are some people who do become depressed because of the sports team or politician’s loss because they are so invested in those entities,” said mental-health expert Dr. Jeff Gardere, an assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. “In fact, if they are consumed with the politician or the sports team and that becomes one of the few avenues of pleasure, it is quite possible that a loss becomes devastating to that fan.”

Annemarie Farrell, an associate professor of sport management and media at Ithaca College, added that sports fans can “absolutely” experience depression triggered by the loss of their favorite team. When asked whether fans of particular politicians could also experience such depression after a loss, Farrell said that while it’s possible, “Political parties might be a better comparison, since it can be a longer involvement. The emotional connections to sports teams are often lifetime relationships. I do think it isn’t just chance that so many campaigns use language from sports in discussing the political arena.”

Farrell pointed out that fans often invest time attending games — as well as money purchasing tickets and merchandise — over the years, so they become personally invested, both literally and figuratively, in a team’s success. As a testament to the emotional impact that many fans may feel by a team’s win or loss, she noted, “We even distance ourselves from losses through the language we use as an emotional safeguard. When our teams win, we say, ‘We won.’ When our teams lose, we say, ‘They lost.’ This has been explored significantly in sport-fandom research.”

Sports and Politics Can Lift a City or Drag It Down

To her point, research has found a connection between the performance of a city’s sports teams and the overall health and happiness of that city’s population. While for years much of the data was largely anecdotal, with people reporting individually that they’d noticed that their fellow residents seemed nicer after local teams won championships, in recent years the medical community has confirmed that this is a real phenomenon.

Professor Len Zaichkowsky of the sports-psychology program at Boston University has stated in previous interviews that Boston hospitals noticed improved patient health when the Red Sox were doing well, something he attributed to “community mood states.”