According to the World Health Organization, depression is one of the largest causes of disability worldwide. It is the most common mental health disorder and affects one in 10 people in the Western world. Mental health awareness is on the rise, but there is still plenty to discover about the effects it has on an individual’s ability to function. One such area is the affect depression has on voter turnout and political participation.
Christopher Ojeda, an assistant professor of political science, and his colleague Claudia Landwehr, recently published a letter in American Political Science Review arguing that people with symptoms of depression are less likely to be politically active. In Democracy and Depression: A Cross-National Study of Depressive Symptoms and Nonparticipation, they explore the consequences of depression on a person’s motivation to participate in politics and the ramifications it has for democracy.
“Scholars don’t often talk about democracy and depression together, but the two are strongly connected,” Ojeda said. “Political engagement can be challenging for citizens who are sad, fatigued, and lonely. It’s hard for them to express their political voice—or to know how to use their political voice in the first place.”
Ojeda is familiar with depression. Throughout his life, friends and family members struggled with bouts of depression. He was never sure how to help other than providing social support. In graduate school, however, he figured out he could help by studying depression as a political scientist.
“I worked in a psychology lab with researchers studying adolescent mental health, and I began to think about how depression might matter to politics,” he said. “My hope is that this research will bring greater interest and awareness to the important role of mental health in shaping the way citizens think about and engage with politics.”
In 2015, Ojeda published a paper in Social Science Quarterly that provided the first evidence that depression has a negative effect on turnout and political participation. His work formed the foundation for other studies linking depression to slowed voting habits and lower voter turnout. With this latest research, Ojeda and Landwehr discovered depression could be a better predictor of political participation than other common factors, such as income, gender, or union membership.
“Millions of citizens around the world suffer from episodes of depression each year, and many more experience subclinical feelings of depression,” Ojeda said. “These feelings are heightened during the coronavirus pandemic, and I worry that it may keep many citizens from exercising their right to vote for the country’s leaders in this year’s presidential election. My hope is that by illuminating how depression shapes participation, we can begin to counter this negative effect.”
Colleagues at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, were instrumental in helping Ojeda with this research by providing useful feedback about how to improve the quality of the work. Financial support was also critical in helping him get this work published.
Next on his research agenda is whether politics is making us feel depressed, which is the subject of his book manuscript.
“Whether it is electoral loss, political polarization, social media, or a deteriorating social safety net, it is hard to escape the feeling that something is wrong in politics,” Ojeda said. “Many citizens, especially adolescents and young adults, read the news and feel hopeless about the future. They don’t see a way out of the problems facing the United States. My book explores these feelings and the ways we can build institutions that empower rather than depress citizens.”
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