Campus Free Speech

Did Trump's Election Traumatize 25% of College Students? Study's Author Says No

"The students were not asked if they were traumatized and they were not asked if they experienced a traumatic event."


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The 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency caused a quarter of surveyed college students to report systems of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to The Daily Mail's characterization of a new study on the subject.

The author of that study, Melissa Hagan of San Francisco State University, disputes this framing, however. Having reviewed the study myself, I tend to agree with the author that the media is overemphasizing the degree to which it confirms the triggered snowflake moniker for young people. Some were stressed by Trump's win, but to call them "traumatized" is to deploy spin.

The problem lies with The Daily Mail's incorrect assumption that the surveyed students—just under 800 individuals enrolled in psychology courses at Arizona State University—self-reported their feelings. But in fact, as the study makes clear, the participants merely answered questions about their levels of stress in the wake of Trump's presidential ascendancy (three months after the fact), and the study's authors tallied up the results. They found that about one in four students "met criteria for clinically significant symptoms." This was noteworthy because "elevated symptoms of event-related stress are predictive of future distress and subsequent PTSD diagnoses," according to the study.

It may be concerning that many students were so emotionally ill-equipped to deal with Trump becoming president. But these respondents did not claim to be suffering from trauma or PTSD; rather, the study's authors placed them in a high risk category based on their responses.

"The students were not asked if they were traumatized and they were not asked if they experienced a traumatic event," Hagan wrote in an email to Reason. "A 'trauma' is clinically defined as an event that involves exposure to death or actual or threatened experiences of physical harm or sexual assault."

In my experience covering student protests, college-aged activists are too quick to cite mental health problems as a symptom of their brave resistance to whatever is happening in national politics. The best example of this phenomenon was a 2015 article in the Brown Daily Herald, concerning Brown University students' whose political activities had reduced them to state of suicidal despair.

I suspect that many students overstate their anguish, and mistake garden-variety stress as a kind of serious trauma stemming from the inequities they perceive in the world. Life is undoubtedly hard, and the wokest of the young activists seem woefully unprepared to process this. But Hagan's study doesn't confirm the stereotype in the obvious way The Daily Mail reported. That a significant minority of students are somewhat stressed out a few months after the election—maybe because of Trump, maybe for other reasons—isn't such a shocking revelation.