Student Column: Staying Informed but Knowing When to Take a Step Back

For more information on when the debates are and how to tune in, check out “Voter Guide Part I: Important Info and Dates” where we outline the important dates for the 2020 presidential election.

In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, American politics becomes a rush to the oval office. In many ways, that rush can seem like a big performance from the candidates. Between staged photo ops and planned out speeches, it’s hard to find authenticity in the people asking for your vote.

However, there are a few opportunities to see the candidates in a less controlled environment. In October, the American people are offered a glimpse into how the presidential and vice-presidential candidates perform in a high-pressure environment where they have to act on their own instincts. While the debates aren’t a perfect image of the candidates, they are an important part of American politics.

For undecided voters, the debates offer a clearer purpose. Both slates are given a chance to protect, promote, or further explain their policies and opinions. Undecided voters can use this knowledge to form an opinion on which side they prefer. It’s important to note that while debates are important, looking at the candidates more closely on your own, is a vital component of being an informed voter (if you aren’t sure how to research candidates, check out “Voter Guide Part II: Filling Out Ballot, Knowing the Issues, Staying Safe”).

The debates are still an important factor for people who already have an idea of who they will vote for. They help bring into focus how the future president/vice president fits into the bigger political picture. Having a clear understanding of the platforms and policies can help you determine how you vote for the other positions on the ballot.

If you already plan on voting for a specific side but don’t like how they address one of their policies, you may choose your local representation based on this. For example, if the platform you’re voting for has offered an answer that you don’t agree with during the debate, you may choose to prioritize those issues when choosing local representation. The president determines a lot, but not everything. Using the debates as a way to figure out how you want to vote down the ballot can help you determine who will fight for the gaps in your presidential slate’s platform.

The debates offer a chance to figure out exactly how you feel about the 2020 election, but that does not mean that you have to think of them as mandatory viewing. It’s important to be informed, but, for many people, watching the debates can have a negative impact on their mental health, especially this year.

For marginalized communities, watching the candidates ignore issues that are extremely important to them may be a lot to handle. It can bring on anxieties surrounding the election that are out of an individual person’s control, such as candidates avoiding direct or empathetic answers about their stances on police brutality. Some may feel overwhelmed just by tuning in to the debates.

In addition, watching the debates can result in (or worsen) compassion fatigue, which is defined as “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.” The term was coined to denote the exhaustion carried by caregivers in a medical sense. However, the modern interpretation of compassion fatigue is used to label the pain that people experience from seeing their communities traumatized and harassed despite efforts to fight that oppression.

While compassion fatigue is common, the debates can make it feel like it’s too much to handle. When you’re experiencing these issues every day, and then the presidential candidates dismiss those experiences, it’s difficult to feel optimistic about either platform. Recognizing that those feelings are valid and fair is more important than watching the debates as they air. Compassion fatigue can easily become overwhelming, especially in cases where what you are watching can determine how much access you have to safety and security in your day-to-day life.

If you’re watching the debates and you begin feeling anxious, it’s okay to turn it off. There are ways to engage with the debates, without sacrificing your mental health. For some people, they may postpone watching the debates. For others, they may watch it in stages or skip questions that may spark those anxieties or that compassion fatigue. You could even watch the post-debate coverage to view highlights and short sound bites from the debates.

The most important thing to remember about the debates is that you are allowed to consume them in whatever way makes the most sense for you. Don’t feel bad if you have to turn it off, and if you’re watching the debates with other people and notice them becoming anxious or upset, understand that everyone reacts differently. What’s easy for you, may be too difficult to deal with for someone else. The debates are an important part of American politics, but not more important than your mental health.


Students who are experiencing anxieties, want to talk to someone and/or find ways to improve their mental health are encouraged to utilize the following campus resources:


MU Counseling Center

MU Student Health Center

MU Wellness Resource Center


What MU students are saying after the first two debates:


“Presidential debate was clustered. The Vice Presidential debate was more civil.”  -CJ Scott


“There is very little either candidate could say in the debate that would make me change my mind on who I’m voting for”  -Sydney Lewis


“Both debates made me dislike both tickets even more than I already did. I think the debates are more just a PR stunt than they are for comparing policies and platforms.”  -Casey Bonds


“The debates didn’t change my mind of who I would vote for. The VP debate was more civil and better handled than the presidential debate.”  -Darreon Carbin


“Both were hard to watch, disappointing to see our “leaders” be immature. I felt uneasy. It’s important to know the views of candidates you’re voting for to know what they support and what they will do in office. I think so many people don’t know what to do which is stressful.”  -Aysia Grey


“I think both presidential debates went exactly how we thought they would go. I don’t feel like I learned nothing about either side’s policy. If I was undecided, this would not have swayed my vote. While the VP debate was more civil and informative, I still just don’t feel like it was enough to sway opinions. It is so important to be involved in politics at this age. If we want things to change, we have to do what we can to change them. Also, candidates typically don’t promote their policies in debates like this – it’s up to us to educate ourselves on these policies and make sure that we know who we’re voting for.”  -Taylor Bunch


“Personally, I think the debates are pretty useless, it’s really just a huge publicity stunt. The real important policies and stances should already be established by this point. Biden and Harris don’t have any real hardline stances on policy that would change the opinions of swing voters, and that was really exposed in the debates, so that is concerning to me.”  -Evan Manhas


“I think it’s important to watch the debates because you get to see how the candidates do on the fly and how they truly will handle each issue that they’re faced with. I felt like the presidential debate was very unprofessional and it made me look at our president more of a dictator and a bully than our president and I felt like the questions should’ve been answered better.”  -Cheyenne Shepherd


“The debate last week was hectic and very hard to follow, with all three of them often speaking at the same time. Last night’s VP debate felt much more like a real debate, with both candidates being respectful overall. I thought VP Pence consistently attacked Harris with facts and was the clear winner.”
  -Peyton Hall


“I’m feeling pretty demoralized about the rhetoric used on both sides. Both debates felt like Trump/Pence was covering and making their administration feel better than it has been and interrupting and Biden/Harris were mainly focused on tearing down their opponents’ policies rather than promote their own.”  -Drew Shattuck


“I feel like the vice presidential debate was way more civil than the presidential debate. A lot of that I think has to do with the fact that Harris is not only a person of color, but a woman who does not have the luxury of being able to talk over other people without being called [the “b” word]”  -Emily Eller


“I think it’s a scary time and I think that the debate reflects all of the normal fears that you would have about a pandemic and about democratic backslide and about the economy, so I do think there is some anxiety that comes with following the news. I would call myself a news junkie. I wake up every morning and I drink a cup of coffee and I read the New York Times and the Associated Press like an old man and so I’m inundated with that pretty frequently. I would say the debate is noisier than reading the news, quite literally there’s a lot of interruption, and so that adds some sense of anxiety almost like you’re watching a thriller or horror movie and you know the jump scare’s going to come at any time. I guess I would say there is some anxiety, but livable anxiety.” -Samuel Peterson


“The presidential debate was kind of a disaster as both nominees just talked over each other and didn’t really answer the questions they were asked. The VP debate was better and at least seemed more tamed.”
  -Tom Campbell


“I think it’s extremely important to watch the debates and stay informed. Politicians function off of ignorance and people not really paying full attention to their policies and what they’re doing. It’s important to stay up to date so that you can make informed decisions about who you support and vote for. The presidential debate was honestly embarrassing and a bit demoralizing. Both candidates came off as unprofessional and it made me nervous about the future of this country.”
  -Wendell Shepherd


“The VP debate was much more tolerable to watch because there were few interruptions. Even though the VP debate doesn’t matter much, it was interesting to hear more about policy. Also, Kamala Harris is an excellent debater, so it was fascinating to watch someone who is so intelligent take on current issues.”  -Alicen Dietrich


“Kamala Harris handled herself really well last night. I loved that she spoke up for herself and didn’t let Pence walk all over her and her allotted time. She came in with facts and was able to own to her own past mistakes. I didn’t appreciate the people on twitter who said she came off as “bitter & angry” because that was a micro aggression. She spoke up for herself and they are trying to label her as an angry black woman”  -Alana Hayes


“Last week’s presidential debate was the first debate I had ever watched and afterwards I had to call my mentor to see if that was how presidential debates usually went. It was somewhat informative but also somewhat entertaining which I don’t think is a good thing.”  -Kevin Green


“My perspective hasn’t changed. It’s important to watch the debates to see how the candidates represent themselves. Trump and Pence don’t know how to answer basic debate questions. If they can’t even do that, there’s no way they’re ever going to be able to lead our country in an effective way. Watching both Biden and Kamala Represent the left respectfully was inspiring and gave me hope for the upcoming election.”  -Julia Williams


“I thought that the VP debate was much more civilized than the Presidential Debate. My mind was already made up on who to vote for, however watching Pence normalize republican ideals surprised me. Although he still didn’t answer many questions and tried to run over Kamala.”  -Ashley Jones


“I think it’s important to stay politically informed because it tells you a lot about a potential or current president’s character. It is important to see where they stand on certain policies and what they will try to accomplish in office.”  -Jessica Stacker


“Although I didn’t watch the debate I saw brief videos and I thought it was very unprofessional and although neither choices are perfect I’m glad I now have the power to at least make an impact on the better choice.”  -Taelyn Houston