Sick and tired: Are White House policies perpetuating mental illness?
© Getty Images

Stress is permeating the U.S. population with different triggers than in the recent past.

According to the American Psychological Association Stress in America Survey, before the election, 52 percent of Americans reported that the election was a significant source of stress. After the election, two-thirds of Americans, including the majority of both Republicans and Democrats, said that the future of the nation was a significant source of stress.

Many Americans, or 59 percent, fear acts of terrorism. Less than half, or 44 percent, cite police violence toward minorities as a significant source of stress. A third, or 34 percent, reported concerns about personal safety.

ADVERTISEMENT
These stressors have negative implications for both physical and mental health.

Eighty percent of people reported at least one health symptom due to stress. About one-third reported headaches; another third said they felt overwhelmed; 33 percent also said they were feeling anxious or nervous and 32 percent reported they felt depressed or sad.

In the first 100 days of the Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE presidency, the rights and privileges of almost all Americans have been threatened. While certainly, there is no definitive cause and effect between this administration’s policies and the mental health of Americans, many report these symptoms and concerns are recent and timed with many emerging news announcements and events.

The Affordable Care Act may be repealed without a replacement. The recent “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States” executive order — stopped by a federal judge, but in danger of a revision — banned persons from “terror prone” countries including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia from entering the United States.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is suspended. Aggressive plans to deport illegal immigrants are in place, The Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipeline is nearly complete, despite environmental, health and safety concerns. Recently, rights have been rescinded for transgender students to use bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity. The promise to restore “law and order” frightens many.

Many Americans report they believe their safety and security are in imminent danger. Some report they are consumed with debilitating fear and worry about what may come; they feel helpless in altering the course of what appears to be an inevitably negative outcome.

Although the latest shifts in policy have contributed to increased stress among the American people, many Americans were already stressed and coping with symptoms of mental illness prior to the election. This stress can in part be attributed to environmental factors such as high rates of unemployment, rising costs of living, increasing poverty rates and gun violence.

Yet in the 2015 Stress in America report, Americans reported that the top four sources of stress were money at 64 percent, work at 60 percent, family at 47 percent and health at 46 percent. What a difference one year makes.  

As a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, I find that work-related stress is indeed a frequently reported trigger for mood disturbance.

This type of stress can contribute to symptoms of depression and anxiety whereby people report feeling overwhelmed, decreased motivation, irritable or on edge, difficulty with attention and concentration or frequent worry thoughts.

These symptoms have a cyclical effect and can ultimately interfere with a person’s ability to keep up with typical activities daily life such as going to work, being productive at work, making ends meet and taking care of himself or herself as well as families.

The inability to carry out these responsibilities sustains the low mood, and the cycle continues.

Stress may well be a constant in modern life. But noting the stark contrasts in the sources of stress from 2015 to 2016 demonstrates a possible shift in triggers for stress from individual level needs to global cultural and environmental concerns.

When an individual perceives a stressor to be global and out of their control, it can be especially distressing.

Every American deserves high quality, accessible, evidence-based mental health treatments, and adequate, affordable health insurance to cover the costs of care. But perhaps what we also need are attempts to shift to a culture where Americans are not bombarded by environmental factors that tax their psychological resources and strain their mental health. They already have enough on their minds.  

Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She is an NU Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.​


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.