How does depression affect the way we perceive politics during the pandemic?

Posted on: 23 June 2021 by Dr Luca Bernardi in June posts

Statues with mask

Life changes due to Coronavirus responses are predicted to have serious implications for people’s mental health - as warned by the World Health Organisation and other experts. Dr Luca Bernardi, one of our Lecturers in Politics, has carried out two research projects exploring the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and political attitudes. In this blog he talks about his project focusing on the UK specifically, which he is conducting jointly with Professor Ian H. Gotlib of Stanford University, and what the findings are so far.

Depression is among the most common of all psychiatric disorders, and is expected to become the world’s most burdensome illness in the coming decades. Not only does depression change the way we feel, it also changes how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. It would be naïve to think that politics is indifferent to this formulation. But how can depression affect the way we perceive politics, particularly during the challenging times we are currently living in?

Man standing in front of window looking out

We have formulated a theory that might help us understand how this may work. Our theory comprises four steps, as shown in the figure below.

Covid stressors diagram

The first step links stressors with depression. All the stressful measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, like wearing a face mask, reducing social contacts, or restrictions to leaving our home, in addition to the worries about our own health and that of our family and friends, our financial situation, or the long-term effects of the pandemic on our societies, can trigger depression.

The second step links depression with political attitudes. Feelings of apathy and lack of motivation and hopelessness about the future – all symptoms of depression – may negatively influence our evaluations of political objects such as government, the trust we put in them, and our perceptions of responsiveness of the political system.

The third step in our model links depression with cognitive processes. Research on cognitive aspects of depression has identified two main factors: negative biases in the way depressed people attend to, interpret, and recall information – including political information – and the strategies depressed people use to regulate their emotions and cope with their depression. The rehearsal of negative material – what psychologists call rumination – is frequently used by depressed people; it not only consumes cognitive resources and fixates attention on depressive symptoms, but it also exacerbates depressed people’s tendencies to think negatively about the past, the present, and the future. We argue that through these two mechanisms depression also influences our perceptions about politics.

Man hugging his knees statue

Working with YouGov, we conducted an online survey funded by our British Academy Special Research Grant on COVID-19 with a representative sample of the British population in March 2021, asking a series of questions about COVID-19 stressors, depressive symptoms, negativity bias, rumination and political attitudes. We found a good deal of support for our theory. First, we found that COVID-19 stressors are associated with depressive symptoms (Step 1). Second, we found that both rumination and negativity bias are also associated with depressive symptoms (Step 2). Third, we showed that depressive symptoms are directly associated with satisfaction with the way government handled the pandemic, trust in government, and the perceived responsiveness of the political system (Step 3). Fourth, we found that (a) rumination is negatively associated with people’s perception of their ability to understand and participate effectively in politics; and (b) negativity bias is negatively associated with all government-related attitudes (Step 4).

In sum, our findings suggest not only that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected our mental health, but further, that our mental health and cognitive functioning affect how we perceive and make sense of politics.

Discover more

Read more about Dr Luca Bernardi's research projects.

Explore the wide range of Covid-19 research work going on at the University of Liverpool.