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UNL researchers find Americans losing sleep, getting sick over politics

UNL researchers find Americans losing sleep, getting sick over politics

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Talking heads yelling over one another, social media vitriol and constant campaigning are taking a toll on Americans' mental, emotional and physical well-being, a new study found.

Nearly 40% of Americans who completed a University of Nebraska-Lincoln-designed survey in March 2017 said politics was a source of stress in their lives, while 20% reported losing sleep over something political.

Roughly 1 in 20 respondents said politics had led them to have suicidal thoughts, said Kevin Smith, chair of UNL's political science department, which would translate to roughly 10 million people nationwide.

The sum total of the research published this week in PLOS One, a scientific journal, is grim.

"What we found is that, for a large number of American adults, politics is exacting a significant cost on their lives," Smith said.

Previous studies have pinpointed politics as a significant source of stress in American life, Smith said, but the UNL researchers, along with Matthew Hibbing of the University of California, Merced, began to think about how there might be more consequences to the increasingly politicized daily life following the 2016 election.

The research team adapted a 32-question diagnostic panel used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous to gather information on physical and mental health, regretted behavior, and social and lifestyle costs, and administered it to 800 people through YouGov, an internet-based market research firm, over five days.

The responses, which reflected a representative sample of the U.S. population, revealed a particularly "raw period" in American political life, Smith said.

And the data show the ubiquity of politics in everyday life might be more draining on the public than originally thought.

"It's above and beyond getting into an argument with Uncle Fester at the Thanksgiving table," Smith said.

According to the survey:

* 31.8% of respondents said media outlets carrying views contrary to theirs had taken a toll on their mental health.

* 29.3% said politics had caused them to lose their temper.

* 22.1% said they are too engaged in who wins and loses elections.

* 20% said differing political views have ruined friendships.

* 11.5% said politics had negatively affected their physical health.

Smith cautioned that the data reflects a single point in time, and that more studies would need to be done to examine whether the responses have changed.

He also said most of the perceptions of political stress came from those who self-identified as younger and on the left side of the political spectrum, which he speculated could have been flipped had the survey been done a few months earlier, at the end of the Obama administration.

The UNL team is encouraging others to build upon its initial study to further examine the phenomenon, but Smith said the initial results seem to show there are steep downsides to political and civic engagement, which he noted is ironic in a democratic nation.

"There are a set of costs associated with politics that haven't been fully thought through or discussed," Smith said. "But if you took the word politics out of it and put vaping in, for example, I think people would respond to that and say its indicative of a public health problem."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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