Is Depression an Overlooked Obstacle to Participating in Politics?

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Kumar Ramanathan, covers the new article by Claudia Landwehr,  Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz and Christopher Ojeda, University of Tennessee:Democracy and Depression: A Cross-National Study of Depressive Symptoms and Nonparticipation

When we think about the factors that shape participation in politics, we often turn to institutional factors such as voter registration requirements or individual factors such as socioeconomic status. One important factor, however, has been overlooked: the mental health of ordinary citizens. In a new article in the American Political Science Review, Claudia Landwehr and Christopher Ojeda share sobering evidence about the significant impact of experiencing depression on political participation.
To study this phenomenon, Landwehr and Ojeda draw on four different surveys administered in 25 European countries, Israel, and the United States. Since the surveys were administered at different times and use different combinations of survey questions to measure depressive symptoms, the study offers a robust test of whether depressive symptoms are a significant cause of lower political participation.

In statistical analyses of the survey data, Landwehr and Ojeda find that having depressive symptoms strongly predicts a lower probability of voting. Their models show that going from no to full depressive symptoms leads to a decline in the probability of voting between 5 and 25 percentage points. The effects of depression exceed the effects of many commonly known factors that influence voting, such as income or physical health. The only factors whose effects consistently outweigh that of depressive symptoms across the models are education and age. These factors also interact with each other: since depression disproportionately affects individuals with lower socioeconomic status, this phenomenon exacerbates existing inequalities in political representation.

Why do depressive symptoms decrease the likelihood of political participation? Landwehr and Ojeda point to two main mechanisms. First, they argue that depression reduces political motivation. Depression makes it hard for sufferers to see how their changes in the environment, political or otherwise, could affect them positively. Furthermore, prior studies have shown that depressive symptoms shift sufferers’ focus to immediate, everyday problems rather than more abstract and remote issues of politics. The authors’ analyses of the survey data support their argument, finding a consistent effect of depression on political motivation, as measured by questions on interest in politics and a belief that one has the ability to engage in politics. These findings illustrate the importance of addressing depression if we are to build inclusive democracies“.

Second, Landwehr and Ojeda argue that depression makes tasks that require physical energy harder, which in turn reduces the likelihood that sufferers of depression will engage in political activities that involve physical exertion. For example, before someone can vote, they must register, make their way to a polling station, and queue up to cast a ballot. When coping with daily tasks is already challenging, these additional tasks can seem insurmountable. To test whether this mechanism is present, the authors compare the effects of depression on different kinds of political activities in the survey data. They find that depression significantly decreases the likelihood of participating in activities that require physical exertion (such as voting or protesting) but has a negligible effect on non-physical activities (such as contacting a government official or signing a petition).

These findings illustrate the importance of addressing depression if we are to build inclusive democracies. Although their study does not prescribe particular policy solutions, Landwehr and Ojeda urge us to consider how political participation can be made less difficult for those with depressive symptoms. For example, we could design reforms in electoral rules and political institutions that reduce the motivation and physical resources required for participation. The stakes of such reforms are high: other studies have suggested that rates of depression are rising worldwide, and they may further increase in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The vitality of democracy rests, in part, on our ability to care for the mental health of ordinary citizens.

  • Kumar Ramanathan is a doctoral candidate in political science at Northwestern University and will be a doctoral fellow at the American Bar Foundation beginning in the fall of 2020. His dissertation investigates how liberal politicians in northern Democratic Party contested and constructed a civil rights legislative agenda during the 1930s-60s, and aims to explain the origins and limitations of racial liberalism as it emerged among these party elites. His research agenda also includes a set of projects on the impact of civil rights law and policy on the politics of social policy after the 1960s, and collaborative projects on immigrant political participation and urban politics. At Northwestern, Kumar is affiliated with the Chicago Democracy Project, the Comparative Historical Social Sciences Working Group, and the Program in Legal Studies. He received his B.A. in political science and philosophy from Tufts University.
  • Article details: American Political Science ReviewFirst View , pp. 1 – 8, “Democracy and Depression: A Cross-National Study of Depressive Symptoms and Nonparticipation” by Claudia Landwehr,  Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz and Christopher Ojeda, University of Tennessee.
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