One afternoon in the summer of 2003, after lamenting the fact that I still had a few months to go before I turned eighteen, a friend asked why I was so eager. He assumed that I was looking forward to being “available” for an older guy I was interested in (don’t even get me started). Surprised, I responded that I was excited to finally be able to vote. As a teenager, I had never participated in something as large as a national election. The conversation around the 2004 election had already begun, and I was eager to be seen as a participant in the political process. (Did you know that in some cases, younger people who aren’t yet eligible to vote can serve as poll workers? I learned yesterday, at the ripe old age of thirty-five.)
Looking back, my excitement made total sense: Younger adults who volunteer and vote are more likely to be in better health and have fewer depressive symptoms than their peers who don’t. The act of voting has a positive impact on our health. Like with therapy, voting makes us feel heard. When we see that we have made a difference or made progress toward a goal, like electing a particular candidate or supporting new legislation, it can feel incredibly validating. We see that our choices matter and observe progress playing out in real time.
Many times, we’ll hear people say, “I live in _____ state so my vote doesn’t count,” but that is never true. Every vote counts, there are often many other things on a ballot aside from a presidential race, and voting itself is an affirming action—just the act of voting makes your vote count because you are participating in a collective practice and taking action.
Psychologist Marc Zimmerman says part of the overall picture of good health is to learn how you can empower yourself so you can have some control over the things in life that are actually under your control, such as voting. Exercising your right to vote is action, it’s power, and it’s progress.
It’s an understatement to say that 2020 is a stressful year. According to the American Psychological Association, more than two-thirds of adults in the United States say that the 2020 election is a significant source of stress in their lives. It’s more important than ever to practice self care and protect our mental health as we try to navigate the ever-increasing curveballs 2020 throws at us.
Doing something to make your voice heard is empowering. While educating yourself on the candidates and issues can be overwhelming, that knowledge can make you a better advocate for yourself and the people you care about.
You can both schedule time to research the issues and make sure you step away from the screen or newspaper in order to avoid information overload. Familiarize yourself with who and what will be on your ballot and break your research into smaller chunks or look to organizations you trust and support to see who they are endorsing and why.
Talk to your friends and family about voting and make sure they have access to information and a plan. Making voting a social bonding activity can make it an even more fulfilling experience. Studies indicate that “social capital” is one of the biggest predictors for health, happiness, and longevity. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam shows how social ties are not only important for personal well-being, but also for our democracy. When you feel like you are part of a group, you’re more likely to contribute to it—such as by voting.
And after you have voted, give yourself some positive reinforcement and celebrate just like you would with any other victory—just the act of voting is a victory, no matter the outcome.
A national election can feel overwhelming. How can your one little vote make a difference? While it’s important to participate in the political process all year, including local elections, elections at every level have real impact on the laws that govern our daily lives. No one person’s vote counts more than another person’s vote—every voice matters, which means that for folks who feel like they are powerless or who are disadvantaged in some way, voting can level the playing field.
A 2001 paper by Dr. Lynn Sanders asked whether political participation leads to psychological benefits and found that political activity appeared to be more beneficial for respondents prone to psychological distress and might offset some of the negative mental health consequences associated with disadvantaged social status.
"After 2000, people are thinking that their vote may actually count," said Lynn Sanders, PhD, associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia to WebMD. "That transforms the act of voting to one that is more like the act of protest or fighting."
Elected officials make decisions about mental health services, so mental health is always on the ballot, whether through policies, legislation, healthcare, or criminal justice. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources for how to advocate for change when it comes to mental health, how to contact your policymakers, and which legislation NAMI supports.
While health policy has heightened visibility in the presidential race, it is important to consider that its status is also dependent on congressional representatives, senators, and Supreme Court justices. Furthermore, local representatives have a large say in community-level health policies. So every vote counts and every vote matters for mental health.
U.S. citizens who are eighteen years old on or before Election Day and are registered to vote by the deadline in their state have the right to vote in U.S. elections. While you must meet your state’s residency requirements, you can be homeless and still meet these requirements and you can register to vote before you turn eighteen if you will be eighteen by Election Day in nearly every state.
Non-citizens, including permanent legal residents, some people with felony convictions, and some people who are “mentally incapacitated” are not able to vote, although laws vary by state. Some states have voting laws and rules that can make it hard for people with disabilities to vote. This guide explains the voting rights of people with mental disabilities and talks about unfair laws or policies which might restrict your right to vote and explains what you can do about them.
If people try to take away your right to vote because of a disability or any other reason, you can fight back if you know your rights. It is illegal for anyone to try to stop you from voting. You can find out more here and here about your rights as a voter and what to do to protect them.
Your health and wellbeing are most important. There are a few steps you can take to stay healthy this election season:
Although the election season only adds to the stress most of us are feeling every day, taking action to exercise your right to vote, feeling empowered to participate in the political process, and electing officials who will advocate for better mental health policies can make a difference. Take precautions to remain safe, practice self care, and know that, no matter the outcome of the election, your voice matters.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.