The Psychological Cost of Sociopolitical Turmoil
Updated: Mar 26
- Sharanya Mosalakanti
In recent years, India has seen a rise in sociopolitical conflicts, including the Anti Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests, armed conflict in Kashmir, and communal tensions across state borders. Public demonstrations gained momentum worldwide simultaneously – the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA, Brazilian protests against police brutality, and protests in Hong Kong, among many others. A majority of these movements were accompanied by social media agitation and involved the participation of youth in large numbers. Since social unrest increases interpersonal and intrapersonal tensions, it inevitably draws attention to conflicts of the crowd, trampling the well-being of individuals. Mental health concerns often go unnoticed in such cases.
The aftermath of public demonstrations is usually violence, destruction, and loss of lives and livelihood. Participating members, victims of violence, eye-witnesses, and passive observers show significant patterns of mental distress. Studies show that these individuals are at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and adjustment disorders.
Research on mental health during and after protests suggest similar psychological impacts even when protests were non-violent. Anxiety and depression during public dissent have been attributed to socioeconomic status, political uncertainty and exposure to media coverage.
Youth, children, and women are reportedly more vulnerable and exposed to psychological distress during conflicts. Indian perspective on gendered conflicts in the book Victims, Perpetrators Or Actors reveals that though women were never ‘directly involved’ in war and conflicts, widowhood, destruction of property, loss of family, physical and verbal abuse, isolation, and insecurity impacted their psychosocial well-being. Fear of violence and religious appropriation continued post-conflicts.
A therapist’s records of her clients during the anti-CAA-NRC protests showed unusual stress patterns and visible changes in their routine. Clients reported persistent emotional fatigue, 'fear of being judged,' and a decrease in workplace productivity during the protests. These have also affected family relationships as a result of differing opinions, creating mental barriers within the household.
Social Identity, Cyberbullying, and Social Media Warfare
While public demonstrations are deemed as ‘collective action’ against an authoritative body, social identity is a deciding factor when forming opinions and indulging in dissent. Religious preferences, political affiliation, and ethnicity constitute identity development in young adults. A threat to one's identity often manifests into physical aggression, violence, or involvement in social media feuds, especially when the group feels threatened or exploited by members of the other group.
A sense of collective trauma has increased political engagement in all spheres. The pressure to be associated and informed at all times has kept people on the edge. Although social media leverages public interests and leads to social justice, political aggression in the process enables a culture of malice and toxic behavior against users with conflicting views.
In her book Political Cyberbullying: Perpetrators and Targets of a New Digital Aggression, Sheri Bauman focuses on online hostility and cyber-aggression, where targets are repeatedly harassed, singled out on social media platforms, and fall victim to the online ‘cancel culture’ - a system where online communities collectively ostracize a public figure through hate and offensive messages, and threats. These internet behaviors are closely linked to anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and physical symptoms such as headaches, loss of appetite, and disturbed sleep patterns.
Observationally, hate speech targeting individuals based on their political affiliation or social community has acquired more ground today than ever. Biased media and content lead to misinformed conclusions and consequently social media altercations. There is a risk of being misjudged, ostracized, receiving backlash, or being threatened. A fear of public reaction and insecurity is attached to being vocal about socio political opinions on social media, where neutral stances are often seen through a prism.
Scope for Mental Health Interventions amidst Socio Political Unrest
With a surge in armed conflicts and wars all over the world, Pedersen’s studies highlight the need to focus on psychological distress and long-term consequences of political violence against individuals and communities on their mental health.
Individuals in conflict-prone zones need to be recognized and given treatment. Studies on the role of psychology in coping with social unrest state that there is a need for interventions at preventive, curative, and rehabilitative levels for individuals affected by socio political instability. Healthcare professionals should be sensitive about the repercussions of public demonstrations.
An analysis of the Indian mental health scenario in 2019 suggests an increase in the allocation of the total health budget on mental health to ensure mental health advocacy and availability of services. The study on the effects of armed conflict in Kashmir also gives scope for the identification and treatment of mental health disorders in affected individuals, especially young adults. Interventions must focus on paring down risk factors of the same and making mental health treatment more feasible.
Social well-being is ascribable to co-existence in a society undeterred by political affiliation, religious and ethnic beliefs, or social status. With dynamic changes in social arrangements, an interdisciplinary approach in the field of psychology encourages a culture of acceptance of differing political stances, religious beliefs, and ethnicity. The role of mental health professionals when dealing with sensitive topics is to primarily focus on being unbiased and accepting of individual socio-political stances. Daily stressors such as family and relationship disputes, workplace performance, and social media engagement can be traced to tackle psychological distress. Individuals, instead of encouraging conversations that hinder the process of learning and unlearning, one can aspire and advocate for healthy discussions on social media.
Sociopolitical issues cause psychological distress to people at all levels. Identifying and dealing with mental health outcomes of social unrest using social and political determinants of lived experiences is essential to ensure psychosocial well-being. Individuals can be positive influencers in society by being more accommodating of people's mental health, less judgmental of individual opinions, and ultimately channelizing our energy for the harmony of the nation.
Sharanya Mosalakanti is a Mental Health Advocate at Nolmë Labs. She is passionate about classical music and enjoys exploring new genres of music. She has been involved in community service since childhood, and wishes to pursue a career in Organizational Psychology.