Can Debates Lead to Clinical Depression?

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

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Atkins, the Red Sox fan, noted that there was a popular saying in Boston to capture the depth of disappointment and heartbreak that the Red Sox had caused their fans for decades: “They killed my grandfather, they are killing my dad and now they are trying to kill me!” But that changed, somewhat, after the baseball team finally won a championship in 2004, which Atkins calls the fourth-greatest day of his life, after his wedding and the birth of his two daughters.

He and his family have long organized their TV-viewing schedules around games, and Atkins has been known to avoid both newspapers and neighbors in the days after a Red Sox loss to a New York team. He added that since the championship win, his mood as a fan in response to a game is largely dictated by whether the team is expected to win or lose. “Winning [or] losing will either put me on top of the world,” Atkins said, or “[have me] gritting my teeth with depression.” The president’s first debate performance left him with the latter feeling. It was not just a loss, but also an unexpected one.

Much like the sports fans whom Farrell mentioned, who invest time and money in a particular team, political supporters often do the same through voting, volunteering and making donations, as well as by taking time out of their schedules to watch major campaign events, like debates. Noted image activist Michaela Angela Davis, an Obama supporter said, “I have never become as anxious and upset about something that is not directly connected to my personal life as I was about that first debate.”

Sharing Davis’ disappointment was Amanda Loureiro, the 37-year-old owner of the Dusty Buttons vintage boutique in New York City’s East Village. Loureiro said that after the second presidential debate, in which Obama delivered a much better performance than the first, she had an actual physical reaction. “I was in a great mood the next day because I got a great night’s sleep.”

She went on to explain that she’d had trouble sleeping for days after the first debate but didn’t make the connection between the anxiety she felt about the election and her inability to sleep. “But I was really upset — really upset — after that first debate,” she recalled.

Loureiro added that she wasn’t the only one. “Business went down after that [first] debate. There just wasn’t the same amount of foot traffic.” She explained that for small shops like hers, business is often dependent on whether people are in the mood to go for aimless walks with friends — the kinds of walks that folks go on when the weather’s nice.

When something affects the overall mood of the city, it affects her business, too. She said that business was noticeably up in the days immediately following the second debate, when the president — the choice of most East Village residents, who tend to be registered Democrats — performed better.

Debate Depression and Its Impact on the Election

Janet Taylor, M.D., clinical instructor of psychiatry at Columbia University, said that there are coping mechanisms that fans and political supporters can employ to reduce the impact of a politician’s or a sports team’s wins and losses on their happiness. “If you are nervous over the next debate, examine your internal reasons about why,” she said. “Remind yourself of the importance of focusing on what you can control. For example, are you registered to vote? Recognize if you feel more stressed alone or in groups. If alone, find a group to watch with, and vice versa.”