Community Connections Matter for the Mental Health of Politically Active Youth
Lead Authors: Lily Feng, Sara Suzuki
Contributors: Alberto Medina, SJ McGeady
There has been increasing attention to the state of young people’s mental health. In 2021, the Surgeon General declared youth mental health as an urgent public health issue that requires the nation’s immediate awareness and action. That same year, the CDC reported that more than 4 in 10 high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and this number had been steadily increasing since 2011. The pandemic is no doubt a major factor contributing to the declining mental health among young people.
In this analysis, we used data from the CIRCLE 2022 post-election survey to explore the mental health of young people, ages 18-29, and how it relates to political engagement and voting. We explore whether young people who are thinking about and addressing major social issues (gun violence, abortion, climate change, etc.) may experience a negative or positive impact on their mental health due to taking action on the issues that matter to them.
We also examine connections between mental health and young people’s behaviors as civic actors to begin to understand how they may be linked. Importantly, we consider whether youth’s access to resources in their environment plays a role in determining what young people experience when they are politically active. Our analysis will test whether youth with more community assets and connections will have different mental health outcomes related to their political engagement than youth who do not have access to people and relationships that can support their action-taking.
- Self-reported mental health was significantly worse among LGBQ+ youth (compared to straight/heterosexual youth) and youth with lower household income
- High levels of political engagement were related to poor mental health across many groups of young people, but not among those with high levels of community assets and connections
- Voting was related to better mental health among all youth, but related to worse mental health among Asian youth, LGBQ+ youth, youth with lower household income and youth with lower educational attainment
- Among youth with the lowest household income levels and those with the lowest education levels, having higher community assets and connections meant voting was no longer associated with poor mental health
Mental Health Worse among LGBQ+ Youth, Most Youth of Color
We measured young people’s mental health using four questions that asked about: (1) feeling alone or lonely, (2) feeling like your life or choices were outside of your control, (3) feeling a lack of confidence in yourself, and (4) feeling unsupported by others around you, such as your friends or family. The mental health scores reflect a continuum of mental health, with high scores reflecting a flourishing and thriving young person, and low scores reflecting a lack of well-being (i.e., the mental health scores are not related to clinical measures).
Our data reflects national findings that found mental health to be worse among LGBQ+ youth. Youth who identify as LGBQ+ has significantly lower mental health scores than youth who identified as straight/heterosexual. In addition to sexual identity, gender diverse youth (those who do not identify as a man or woman) had mental health scores almost 1.5 times lower than men’s mental health score—with women’s mental health score falling in-between.
Our research also found that mental health was worse among youth with lower socioeconomic status as measured by education and household income. Youth who reported an annual household income at or above $150,000 had the highest levels of mental health overall, and average mental health scores decreased with decreasing annual household income. When examining education, the trend was similar, such that with increasing levels of education, mental health was better.
Higher Political Engagement Related to Worse Mental Health
To measure political engagement, we asked youth how many of the following eight types of political actions they had done (see box below). Overall, we found a negative relationship between mental health and political engagement, with youth who had engaged in a higher number of political actions having the poorest mental health.
Youth Civic or Political Actions
The 8 types of civic or political action that made up our “political engagement” score:
1) Volunteer for a political campaign/candidate; 2) Donate money to a campaign; 3) Attend a campaign rally or event; 4) Display a sticker or sign supporting a candidate; 5) Follow a candidate/campaign on social media; 6) Sign a petition or join a boycott; 7) Attend a demonstration, protest, march or another event like a sit-in or walk out; 8) Run for elected office
This relationship held true for many different subgroups of youth across race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and income. However, compared to those with lower levels of educational attainment, among youth with a Bachelor’s degree or higher more political engagement was not related to lower mental health.
Voting Is Related to Better Mental Health—Except for Marginalized Groups
Research by the American Psychological Association has found that young people can find elections to be a significant source of stress, with some researchers finding higher levels of election related “sociopolitical stress” among groups that experience marginalization. During election season, they may be paying greater attention to political information and participating more frequently in political events. Especially in recent cycles, this can mean exposure to harmful rhetoric that may be targeting their community.
Overall, we found that youth who had voted at least once, in at least one type of election (local, primary, or state/national) had better mental health than those who had not voted at all. However, we also found that the relationship between voting and mental health was the reverse for some subgroups of youth.
Asian youth, as well as young people who identified as a racial/ethnic category other than White, Black, Asian, or Hispanic/Latino were more likely to have poorer mental health if they voted in at least one election. The same pattern was found among those who did not identify as a man or woman and among those who identified as gay or lesbian.
Additionally, youth with a lower income ($24,000 or less) and youth who did not finish high school also had a negative relationship between voting and mental health.
It may be that, for marginalized youth, voting is associated with more burdens and costs. Our research has shown, for example, that youth with fewer resources experience barriers to voting like lack of information about the process and difficulty reaching voting locations. Young people who have not had access to institutions of higher education may be more likely to experience similar barriers.
When Youth Have Community Assets, Links Between Mental Health and Civic Engagement Are Positive
The CIRCLE Growing Voters framework underscores the importance of access to resources in supporting the civic engagement of young people. In particular, community assets and connections such as belonging to membership organizations, having spaces to discuss issues, and being able to get support in making sense of civic information can be key supportive structures for youth who are or want to be civically engaged.
Our new research suggests that community assets and connections may be critical to supporting more sustainable political action-taking and voting among youth that supports their mental health.
We find that, among youth who have low levels of community assets and connections (measured as membership in religious, school, local, or volunteer organizations; access to organizations that support them to make sense of information, and having frequent discussions of social issues with family, peers, and community members) higher levels of political action continue to be associated with poor mental health. However, at medium and high levels of community assets and connections, higher political action is not related to significantly worse mental health.
We also looked at whether these community assets and connections play an important role among those young people who voted and who reported lower levels of mental health. We explored whether community assets and connections modified the relationship between mental health and voting for youth with the lowest education levels (high school graduate/GED or less) and lowest income levels ($24,999 or less). We found that, among these groups, having higher levels of community assets and connections meant that voting was no longer associated with poor mental health.
Lower Income/Education Levels and Rurality Can Hinder Access to Community Assets and Connections
Access to community assets and connections could play an important role in mitigating or eliminating the negative relationship between mental health and political action for all youth, and the negative associations between mental health and voting for some groups of marginalized youth. However, our research demonstrates that access to community assets and connections differs among youth subgroups. Most striking are the roles that household income and education play in determining youth’s access to community assets and connections.
Our findings show the steady increase in the availability of community assets and connections as household income levels rise. Community assets and connections also become increasingly accessible to youth at higher education levels. For youth without a high school diploma or GED, the subgroup scored 0.93 on a scale of 0 to 3. In contrast, youth in the highest education group—those with a master’s degree or above—scored 1.46.
Our research also found rurality to play a key role in the level of community assets and connections youth report. Youth in urban areas (as classified by the U.S. Census) had significantly higher community assets and connections than youth in non-urban areas.
The patterns that we see in access to community assets and connections tracks with broader inequities we have found in civic resources. For example we report in our CIRCLE Growing Voters research that youth in rural areas were less likely to have access to civic learning opportunities than youth in urban areas (page 37 of full report).
CIRCLE Growing Voters
Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.
A healthy, robust, and inclusive democracy relies on the political participation of all youth, including youth who experience marginalization. Moreover, studies have shown that civic engagement can be a pathway toward social mobility (higher income and education level) for young people (and, in particular, young people who experience marginalization).
However, our findings show that many youth who experience marginalization have poorer self-reported mental health than their peers. We found worse mental health among LGBQ+ youth, youth with lower household income, and some youth of color. Moreover, our findings suggest that there can be a significant mental health cost to the civic engagement of youth, especially marginalized youth.
This leaves us with a critical question of how we can support the civic engagement of all youth while ensuring that their involvement does not harm their mental health.
Our findings highlight that community assets and connections may be critical for youth to be civically engaged in a sustainable way. While acknowledging that the state of a young person’s mental health itself can impact youth’s ability to take part in civic life, our findings mirror other research that has found that the significant costs associated with activism are allayed by a supportive context.
By extending the community assets and connections available to youth we may be able to disrupt the negative links between mental health and civic engagement. This means building organizations and groups that youth can call their “political home,” creating more spaces where youth can discuss the issues that matter to them with community members, and providing support to youth with making sense of civic information.
Currently, rural youth, youth with lower household income, and youth with lower levels of education have disproportionately less access to community assets and connections, which must be addressed. Investing in community assets and connections for youth who currently lack access to these resources can simultaneously create more opportunities for civic engagement, while addressing the possible mental health costs of their political involvement.
The future of our multiracial democracy depends on diverse youth taking action to address systemic challenges. To support the important political work of young people, we need to provide more community assets and connections for youth so that they can sustainably take action on the issues that matter to them.
About the Survey: The survey was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University, and the polling firm Ipsos collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents and a sample of people recruited for this survey between November 9 and November 30, 2022. The study involved an online surveyed a total of 2,018 self-reported U.S. citizens ages 18 to 29 in the United States. Unless mentioned otherwise, data are for all 18- to 29-year-olds in our sample. The margin of error for the entire sample is +/- 2.2 percentage points; subsamples may have higher margins of error.