Friday, April 26, 2019

Political Rhetoric on Immigration Found to Affect Mental Health

Politicians and pundits may want to consider the emotional impact their words have not only on the groups they’re targeting, but also on the nation as a whole. A study on immigration rhetoric in Social Science & Medicine finds that negative rhetoric can cause feelings of hurt, anger, and distress in its targets, but positive rhetoric fosters perceptions of greater health, well-being and feelings of belonging.

Leo R. Chavez, Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, examined the impact of political rhetoric on 280 Mexican-origin young adults (average age approximately 21 years). Study participants were born in Mexico or had at least one ancestor who was born in Mexico. The researchers collected data between August 2016 and June 2017.

Participants were randomly divided into three groups. One group viewed positive rhetoric, such as a snippet of former President Barack H. Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address in which he described immigrant students as talented, responsible young people who could enrich the nation. One group viewed negative rhetoric, such as President Donald J. Trump’s campaign-trail characterization of Mexicans who come to the U.S. as drug carriers, criminals, and rapists. The control group viewed neutral rhetoric about the color of university buildings. The researchers then asked participants open-ended questions about their feelings and reactions to what they had viewed; participants further indicated their feelings on several rating scales.

Participants who viewed political rhetoric of both types reacted strongly compared with participants who viewed neutral rhetoric. Participants who viewed positive rhetoric reported higher positive emotions and perceptions of health and well-being and lower levels of perceived stress. They used words such as proud, contribute, good, happy, community, benefit, work, success, empower, and help to describe their reactions.

In contrast, negative rhetoric was associated with higher negative emotions and perceived levels of stress and lower perceptions of health and well-being. Participants in this group used words like racist/racism, stereotype, sad, angry, upset, ignorant, offended/offensive, unfair, hate, discrimination, and hurt to describe their feelings.

“These findings suggest that negative political rhetoric about immigrants and Mexican-origin people adversely affected the emotions and the mental health of the targets of the rhetoric. Such rhetoric elicits feelings of hurt, anger, distress, and anxiety,” Chavez and colleagues wrote.

In their conclusion, the researchers noted the broad impact of political rhetoric on the nation. “When words wound, they tear at the body of the nation, creating divisions that reinforce systems of prejudice and inequality,” they wrote. “On the other hand, … moderating political rhetoric could have a salutatory effect not just on the targets of that rhetoric but for the nation as a whole. … [It] can be integrative, enhancing a sense of community and belonging, and easing stress about one's relationship to the larger society.” 

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article, APA Maintains Pressure on Administration Regarding Welfare of Migrant Children.

(Image: iStock/AlxeyPnferov)


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