University community talks psychological impact of debate

Sunday, November 10, 2019 - 5:57pm

A representative from CAPS speaks on the concern that the outside community will have on students during the presidential debate in the fall of 2020.

A representative from CAPS speaks on the concern that the outside community will have on students during the presidential debate in the fall of 2020. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

When LSA junior Fareah Fysudeen heard the University of Michigan would be hosting one of the presidential debates in the fall of 2020, she said she assumed it was for publicity. Upon thinking about it further, she felt like the University was not considering the potential impacts of this decision on marginalized communities. 

“It’s a way to establish ourselves as a good school and as the kind of school that would host such a presidential debate,” Fyusdeen said. “So, immediately I thought, oh, this is a self-aggrandizing thing. It’s a way to get out there … my immediate second thought was, after I talked about it with other people who expressed concern, oh, that makes sense. This University is doing this for a namesake, and it is clear to me that they would not always consider the implications this would have on marginalized communities on campus.”

Since the announcement the University will be hosting the event, the University has held multiple town hall events to discuss student involvement and safety during the debate. 

In an interview with The Daily earlier this month, University President Mark Schlissel said the University would be extremely well-prepared in terms of safety for the community. 

“It’s not just our DPSS, but it’s state police, all the national security apparatus will be here,” Schlissel said. “It’ll probably be the safest place in America, physically.”

Schlissel also discussed how the debate might negatively impact students mentally due to the intensity of the current political climate. 

“I recognize that it’s going to be a stressful year because the body of politics is very polarized, and there’s a lot of fear mongering as part of the debate, and we’re all subject to that,” Schlissel said. “I think that it may be of more intensity because everyone is here in town, but I think it’s going to be pretty intense no matter what. We have CAPS.”

Christine Asidao, associate director of community engagement and outreach at Counseling and Psychological Services, said she is most concerned about potentially hateful incidents coming from people from outside of Ann Arbor visiting for the debate, making students generally feel more unsafe on campus.

“It really is more what are some of the protections associated with the debate,” Asidao said. “You know, we’ve seen it in the past with the previous election, things that might occur, like possible hate and bias incidents. That sense of just, you know, feeling unsafe psychologically as well as physically for some of our students.”

Fysudeen said elections in general tend to change the campus climate at the University and that hosting the debate will further increase the tension in the community. 

“Presidential elections themselves have a profound effect on the climate on campus, and I think (the debate) just raises the stakes so much higher,” Fysudeen said. “It turns up the heat, especially if we’re going to be an epicenter of the eye of the entire nation. I feel like people feel the need to perform or to respond or to be reactive, and so it heightens the tension that already exists when these elections happen, especially following the 2016 election.”

Fysudeen continued by discussing how marginalized communities often most strongly feel the effects of this tension and have to respond or defend themselves.

“It just raises the stakes in a way that can be very hostile sometimes, and marginalized communities are usually the ones that take the blunt of that tension,” Fysudeen said. “And so people of color, people who aren’t represented, people who constantly have to be at the forefront of these things are just going to be put in places where they have to be or represent themselves or, you know, their mere existence is going to have to be defended.”

Indeed, LSA sophomore Julianna Collado, external director of La Casa, told The Daily in an email interview that the atmosphere surrounding debate will be difficult to predict, but it’s important to prepare communities for anything that might happen. 

“Even though it is a great opportunity, we are sensitive to the needs of our community on campus,” Collado said. “The Latinx community has been a target of Trump’s administration, right alongside many of the communities also represented on Michigan’s campus. Due to his rhetoric and others, people feel emboldened to express their racist and xenophobic sentiments as well. In many ways, we do not know what to expect from the Presidential Debate being on campus. We do know that there will be an increase in media, security, and people in general in Ann Arbor, which is unpredictable in and of itself. For this reason, we are already planning ahead to identify ways to support members of the Latinx community on U-M’s campus.” 

As Schlissel said, the debate will bring additional police presence to campus to protect students physically. However, Asidao said having more security could have an adverse effect on some members of the community. 

“I think for some of our students, knowing that the University is really thinking about campus security can be really helpful,” Asidao said. “For some of our students, the relationship in terms of having, maybe, an increased police presence may actually be more anxiety provoking in some ways because of what has happened for some of our students feeling targeted and feeling like there’s more scrutiny, in terms of their own multiple social identities, and maybe being targets of what’s perceived as unfair targeting by security. I think it’s going to be a mixed bag.”

Fysudeen said she would appreciate the additional police presence, but doesn’t think it is an all-encompassing solution. Physical safety will not prevent students from feeling unsafe on campus, she said.

“I think as long as our safety is being thought of proactively rather than reactively, as long as those safe spaces are made, I think this tension can be, you know, addressed successfully,” Fysudeen said. “I think that there’s something to be said there positively. And so, I think that's a great sentiment, but I also think it’s just going to be a lot of psychological and emotional strain on students. And I don’t think that there’s a way that physical safety often can mitigate that.”

Asidao said the potential psychological impact of this debate on students could manifest itself in a variety of ways, but she predicts there will be an underlying sense of anxiety in many of the feelings that may come up. 

“(The psychological impact) can come in a variety of different ways, but one of the things we have seen is just this increased sense of anxiety, just worry,” Asidao said. “Worry in terms of personal safety, worry in terms of the future, worry in terms of what might be coming, worry for their own sense of people within their community, being worried about their peers … For some of our students, it may also increase some depressive symptoms, feelings of sadness, feelings of hopelessness. For some of our students, it can also bring up any previous traumatic experiences in their lives.”

Asidao said the University is proactively preparing for the psychological impacts of the debate by holding town halls and meeting with a variety of different groups on campus to make sure all student concerns and perspectives are heard. She noted CAPS will have more concrete ideas of what programs they want to implement in the coming months, after having more dialogues with the community. 

“In order to prepare for the debate, we’ve already started discussions in terms of campus climate, in terms of student engagement, in terms of dialogue, all of these different things,” Asidao said. “We’re actually going to be collaborating with the dean of students office, the ginsberg center, campus security, intergroup relations, multi-ethnic student affairs, we’re trying to be very proactive in terms of thinking about our students at a variety of different levels: psychologically, physically, academically, all of these different things. We’re definitely going to be taking the feedback from what’s come out of the various town hall meetings.”