Are Mental Factors Contributing to an Erosion of Democracy?

Mental health is linked to democratic health. During much of the last century, global waves…

Are Mental Factors Contributing to an Erosion of Democracy?

Mental health is linked to democratic health.

During much of the last century, global waves of democracy ushered in systems of self-rule that replaced theocratic institutions of government. By economic and health measures, people living in a democracy tend to be happier and healthier, and the success of a democracy can be measured by the participation of a free and informed citizenry. In recent years, an alarming trend suggests a decline in democratic systems globally through both external (e.g., wars) and internal (e.g., erosion in civil liberties) risks. There is also growing concern with the impact of widespread misinformation and increased extremist ideologies on both democracy and national security.

A recent report by The Brookings Institution explores the relationship between mental health and democracy. This connection is valuable if we want to understand personal factors that may contribute to hatred and polarization, and in some instances, violent behaviors between individuals. Moreover, because the individual is the cornerstone of democracy, rising rates of mental and psychological health conditions, including addiction, depression, and anxiety may pose real harm to the democratic institutions within the United States.

Are Mental Factors Contributing to an Erosion of Democracy?

Source: Nadine Kabbani

Areas where the brain and democracy overlap

Research on the interaction between democracy and brain health is a growing area of global interest. Explicitly, brain health is not just neurobiological fitness (i.e., neurologic disease) but also the cognitive, emotional, and subjective processes of the individual. Here are four key areas where brain health can challenge democracy:

  1. Increased conflict and environmental disasters globally are drivers of large-scale human migration posing significant psychological, physical, and practical challenges to immigrants and communities with immediate and long-term impact on social and economic inequalities that can harm democracy.
  2. Diseases of despair, such as substance abuse, alcohol dependency, and suicidal thoughts or behaviors are on the rise within the United States, and present a problem for both mental health as well as national security systems. In the context of democracy, these diseases are associated with social withdrawal and reduced civic engagement.
  3. An increase in global misinformation (false information) and disinformation (deliberate spread of misinformation) through media and social networks undermines key aspects of the democratic process. Data suggests that those most susceptible are individuals suffering from psychological conditions and vulnerable individuals (such as young adults), and misinformation can erode confidence in democratic processes such as voting.
  4. Inadequate support of education, especially early childhood education, which plays a fundamental role in fostering brain development and cognitive skills. Education teaches people to interact with others and strengthens civic discourse.

Ongoing efforts

Understanding the connection between mental health and democracy is not trivial and requires significant analysis and investment. A better understanding of brain mechanisms that contribute to behavioral biases, for example, may help in understanding the polarization of personal opinions and beliefs. Large initiatives such as NIH BRAIN Initiative’s “Brain Behavior Quantification and Synchronization” aim to study brain activity that relates to behaviors in various social and political contexts. The Mental Wealth Initiative (MWI) developed by the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre in Australia is creating a “Mental Wealth” index that examines each country’s policies for the economic and social health of its citizens. Strategies for combatting online misinformation through infodemiology and cognitive immunology may help in developing tools that safeguard knowledge and information accuracy. Along with other initiatives, brain-related policy has become necessary to protect democracy.