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New Study Reveals How Depression Influences Political Attitudes

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Depression, a prevalent mental health issue, significantly influences individuals’ political perceptions and attitudes, as revealed by a recent study. This research, incorporating a novel survey dataset, highlights the complex interplay between mental health and political beliefs, especially in the context of the Covid pandemic.

The study explores the relationship between depression and political attitudes, integrating cognitive theories of depression with political science. It focuses on how depression, induced by stressors like the Covid pandemic, impacts political views both directly and indirectly through cognitive regulation processes. The research employs structural equation modelling to examine this relationship, drawing on a demographically representative sample from the UK.

The findings were published in the journal Electoral Studies.

Key findings indicate that Covid-related stressors are significantly correlated with depression. This association plays a pivotal role in shaping political attitudes, particularly in terms of government trust and political efficacy. The study distinguishes between “self-related” and “government-related” political attitudes, finding that rumination mediates the impact of depression on the former, while negativity bias affects the latter. For example, individuals experiencing depression exhibit lower levels of internal political efficacy and greater negativity in news selection, leading to decreased political attention and trust in government.

Moreover, the study delves into the nuances of how cognitive biases and emotion regulation strategies, like rumination, are employed by individuals with depressive symptoms. This approach provides a deeper understanding of the psychological underpinnings behind political beliefs and attitudes.

Luca Bernardi, PhD, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Liverpool, provides further insights into the study: “Depression has always existed and is deemed to be one of the most common mental health difficulties.

“For decades, psychologists have been studying how depression changes how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Despite politics being omnipresent in people’s everyday lives, political perceptions have been by and large overlooked. Our task is to understand how depression may influence people’s perceptions of their own ability to engage in politics and how representative government is perceived.”

He added: “The takeaway of our study is that depression may influence political attitudes both directly and indirectly. On the one hand, due to its symptoms, depression may impinge on feelings of representation and trust in government.

“On the other hand, the way that someone who experiences depressive symptoms processes information can tell us something about how they evaluate themselves and the political world.

“In particular, repetitive negative thinking (rumination) partly explains why depression may reduce one’s confidence to engage in politics; in turn, negativity biases in the way people attend to the news partly explain why depression may reduce one’s feelings of representation, trust in and satisfaction with government.”

Bernardi also outlines future directions for this research area: “In the future, we aim to provide more evidence of causal relationships among the links explored in our model and to further study the role played by cognitive regulation processes in explaining the relation between depression and politics.”

The research contributes significantly to interdisciplinary fields, blending insights from psychology and political science. It extends cognitive theories of depression beyond the realm of psychology, offering new perspectives on how mental health can influence political behaviour and attitudes. Additionally, the findings have implications for understanding the broader political effects of the Covid pandemic.

One intriguing aspect of the study is its exploration of the concept of “depression realism”, suggesting that individuals with depression might hold more realistic views of politics. This aligns with previous research positing that depressed individuals often have a more accurate perception of reality.

The study also identifies potential limitations, such as reliance on observational data and self-report measures, suggesting the need for future research to further explore these complex relationships. Nevertheless, the findings present a significant step in understanding the interplay between mental health and political attitudes, opening up new avenues for research and practical applications.

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