The 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings held for Brett Kavanaugh may have caused the equivalent of an additional 26 million poor mental health days for adult women in the United States, according to a new paper from researchers at The University of New Mexico, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

The paper, titled “The relationship between mental health and public attention to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation,” studies the association between exposure to coverage of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, including testimony by Christine Blasey Ford, and mental health outcomes for adult women in the U.S. and the financial implications of those outcomes across society.

“The cost estimates in this paper only account for a portion of the total societal costs associated with these additional poor mental health days,” Colin Sleeper, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Economics and lead author, said. We hope this work will be a great starting point for further examining the societal costs of population-level mental health.”

Women experienced an average of .17 additional poor mental health days, or about four hours, in 2018 from Sept. 13 to Oct. 13, which amounts to an average of 26 million additional days women in the U.S. spent experiencing poor mental health, according to the paper. Researchers found a significant spike in Google Trends data for “sexual assault” during the same 30-day period.

Relative intensity graph

(Fig. 1. The spike in the Google Trends index for “sexual assault” surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation.)

Citing previous research on the financial impact of bad mental health, the team estimated women in the country lost a collective $4.17 billion in personal income growth because of the mental health impact of the hearings and the associated scrutinization of sexual assault allegations.

“This estimate is one of several components of the total costs associated with poor mental health days,” David van der Goes, associate professor in the Department of Economics and co-author, said. “For example, direct healthcare costs and missed workdays would increase the total costs to society.”

Direct healthcare costs, which were not included in the study, include visits to doctors, medication and mental health treatment.

Sleeper first became interested in investigating the mental health impact of the hearings after observing the phenomenon among people he knew. The research team hypothesized that women likely experienced a larger mental health impact due to the hearings than men. In reviewing data, they found no statistically significant difference in men's overall mental health during the timeframe.

“Sexual assault and rape are pervasive in our society, and women are more likely to experience sexual assault and rape than men. The repercussions of sexual violence are lasting, and women experience a greater proportion of these impacts,” Kate Cartwright, associate professor in the School of Public Administration and co-author, said. "Our society does not meet people who have experienced sexual assault with trauma-informed approaches, further exacerbating the costs of sexual assault and rape.”

To conduct the study, the research team used data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and Google Trends data to establish a system to observe potential correlations between poor mental health days and public interest in sexual assault as it related to Brett Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation. BRFSS utilizes state health departments, in-house interviewers and call centers to administer surveys about a number of health-related issues throughout the year.

Distribution of poor mental health days

(Fig. 2. Distribution of poor mental health days)

Women surveyed for BRFSS during the 30-day time frame were nearly 10% more likely to report at least one “not good” mental health day, compared to the same time frame in 2014, which was also a midterm election year. The additional .17 days of poor mental health, or about four hours, was extrapolated to the entire adult female population in the U.S. and adjusted to 2018 dollars to estimate the cost of lost personal income growth.

The authors of the paper concluded that regardless of political affiliation, a high level of care should be taken in making similar selections in the future because of their potential to impact society both emotionally and financially.

“Leaving aside moral judgment, in the interest of public health and productivity, careful consideration should be given to future appointees for high profile public positions and the potential impact on society,” the authors wrote in the paper.