Can activists avoid burnout?


Student activists are having nervous breakdowns. The Self Care Project and other initiatives are finding ways to support their mental health

18th October 2016
By Maggie May Ethridge
Occupy Wall Street protestors in Washington Square Park in 2011

Bridget Crocker still remembers the moment her life veered into radical environmental activism: "I was fourteen. We were all standing there in our Easter Sunday clothes, and my mom was telling us she didn't believe in god anymore, and we were moving to Montana." Bridget helped her mother and new stepfather build a yurt in the Montana wilderness; this rudimentary structure without running water would be their home for the next three years.

Crocker's stepdad was an important figure in a well-known environmental activist group (she declines to name the group) that focused on protecting public lands from corporate takeovers, government neglect, and oil and gas exploration. In 1986, he went to prison for six months for 'monkey wrenching', or performing illegal activities as a form of protest.

Crocker and her brother were constantly pressured to put themselves on the frontlines. Crocker was asked by her own parents to get arrested at protests because her age would prevent the jail time from affecting her permanent record. "The way you feel as an activist in this lifestyle, it's a constant high, but there are corresponding lows  –  violence, abuse and anger and rage," Crocker says over the phone.

She views activism as a necessary and vital agent of change, but asserts that basic human needs cannot be forgotten in the fight for progress. In fact, Crocker herself got lost in the riptide of all-consuming activism.

Crocker was sexually abused by an important leader of the group, and after telling her parents, was shocked by their reaction. "There is the idea that we are fighting the government, and the people you are fighting with, you put a lot of trust in them," she says. "They chose to stay aligned [with] the perpetrator. He was still invited into our home."

Now married with two children, Crocker is still deeply invested in protecting the environment. But though she works as a river guide, environmental activist and writer, she has taken large steps away from the enveloping nature of the work she grew up with.

Crocker's experience highlights an extreme example of what can happen when activism is divorced from the realities of human beings. She was pushed into meeting the group's needs, while being forced to relinquish her own, both emotional and physical.

Modern day activists often have advantages those of the past did not, like time-tested protest methods, better financial backing, and more support from those in positions of power. They also have one of the greatest tools of communication ever created: the world wide web.

When viewed from outer space, the half of the world not illuminated with sun remains fiercely lit  –  an apt metaphor for a world that now never sleeps. Social media has completely disrupted what was left of nature's ability to dominate the rhythms of human life, so an activist can now spend 24 hours a day petitioning, writing, sharing crucial meeting places on Facebook, Snapchatting late night work sessions, and tweeting important contacts. An activist's boundaries and self-care are in their own hands completely.

But with the advent of the internet, an activist today also faces unprecedented challenges that can also lead to extreme emotional and mental exhaustion, such as a never-ending feedback loop through social media channels. On top of that, many traditional challenges of activism remain in place: exposure to violence, blackballing, name-calling, bullying, institutionalised prejudices, and hatred.

"There is always more work to be done. There is always someone to contact or a connection to be made. There's always a new idea to forward to fight against racial inequality. Lives are on the line," says Danielle Morgan, the 32-year-old co-host of the Black Girl Magic podcast and assistant professor of African American literature at Santa Clara University.

An activist today faces never-ending feedback loop through social media channels, exposure to violence, blackballing, name-calling, bullying, institutionalised prejudices, and hatred

Morgan was first educated on the civil rights movement by her parents. At the age of five, her mother sat her down to watch Eyes on the Prize, the civil rights documentary. "I saw Emmett Till's broken body in his casket, the Panthers marching, and the National Black Political Convention," she says in an email. "I became well versed in the beauty and the struggle inherent to the black experience in the United States."

Today, she uses her podcast and writing to engage in activism, and maintains an active presence on social media. "I utilise social media to engage with a virtual community of activists," she said. "I recently moved from a city that was very isolating and racially homogenous, and so Facebook in particular proved to be a site of encouragement and solidarity."

While Morgan has found a strong community through her podcast and Facebook, she also has felt the repercussions of social media. "People don't have to search for your address or phone number," she says. "They can send you a message by clicking on your profile connected to a status that a friend of a friend of a friend shared. I have certainly lost friends and have had to reevaluate relationships. It’s hard." Some white friends have Facebook-messaged Morgan to say that she seems too angry, and should refocus on more positive subjects other than racial injustice.

Overall, though, Morgan feels thankful for what online platforms have been able to bring to her activism. "Social media has been such a benefit in organising widespread movements, and organising them quickly,” she said. “Contemporary activism allows for a wide breadth of participants  – those with mobility difficulties, financial limitations, social anxiety."

In other words, social media itself has been a form of social progressive change, by levelling the playing field of who can easily participate, or participate at all.

In a New York Magazine column, Jesse Singal ponders why student activists are having nervous breakdowns. "When you're a student, it really does feel like fighting against racist columns in your student newspaper is the most important thing in the world, that it might be more important than your own health," he writes. But what happens when, say, you're an activist who's dealing with untreated mental health concerns? "You're unlikely to be a very effective activist  –  or a very effective anything," Singal concludes.

Importantly, activists have been struggling with these issues for generations. In the late 1960s, Anne Moody was spiritually, mentally, and physically exhausted from years of civil rights activism that put not only her beliefs but the safety of her body on the line. In a moment captured by now famous photos, Anne Moody and other activists refused to move from their seats in a restaurant named Woolworth. White people threw condiments at them and dragged Moody and her companions out of the eatery.

Activism wasn't a side effort for Moody. It was borne from her early life in Mississippi. As an activist she was taunted, followed, shot at, mocked, slapped, and condescended to. Her life had been repeatedly threatened. She had given her intelligence, education, and youth to the cause of equal rights for black people, and finally, reluctantly, she took a train to rest in New York City.

In New York, she wrote the award-winning memoir, My Life in Mississippi,and worked with anti-poverty initiatives.

But she didn't return to gruelling activism  –  and couldn't shake the guilt of leaving the fight.

Vikki Reynolds, a longtime activist, consultant, and trainer, believes there are ways to prevent activist burnout. "We are not meant to do all this work alone," she says in a podcast. Self-care is important to set appropriate boundaries – what is really crucial is collective care. "Our best step to avoid burnout is to be [working] alongside each other," she says.

This is the idea behind The Self Care Project. Founded by three activists who saw a need for communal support, the volunteer-run project supports activists' mental and emotional health. Members commit to a two-hour meeting every other week for six months. I spoke on the phone with The Self Care Project's executive administrator, Erin Udal, who says the goal of the meetings is to explore "why we do the work we do, and how we can make it sustainable."

Like Reynolds, Udal emphasised the need for communal support for activists. "We know that there is burnout, and having a glass of wine, or yoga, doesn’t really get at the core root of what is needed," she says. What is needed instead, The Self Care Project believes, is a community of activists who can sympathise with, without judgment or scorn, the personal challenges of this work.

I am tired all the time, but much of that exhaustion comes not from being an activist but instead from the social circumstances that necessitate being an activist

Udal herself did the six-month course, which she found invaluable. "I gained self-awareness about the role I play in activism, and now I recognise my own role in the bigger community of people," she says. "I don't feel so responsible for the whole thing.”

Self-care was an important point for every career activist I spoke with, though the form varied. Danielle Morgan says, "I spend time with family. I bake cookies. I binge-watch musicals. I listen to Hamilton and remind myself that 'this is not a moment / it's the movement'. I occasionally disconnect, but I never stop reading and writing."

Kirsten Palladino, cofounder and editorial director of Equally Wed, a global LGBTQ+ online magazine, believes self-care is a daily ritual, and says over email, "I do yoga, meditation, mantras, hugs, and, most helpfully, I giggle with my children over really silly things. We have a cap on the news. If they're showing the same awful loop, we shut it off and do some family self-care. I asked my wife to change my Facebook password for my personal account for a brief period."

When a person's activism is rooted in their identity, there is a double burden of stress; there is the stress inherent in the acts of activism – the writing, the public discourse, the protesting – and that of embodying the humanity at the centre of the activist cause. In 2010, Dan Choi, an openly gay activist in the military, was hospitalised after suffering a nervous breakdown. Friends of Choi associated his breakdown not only with his work as an activist – which included repeatedly chaining himself to the White House fence – but also from the chronic stress of being openly gay.

Danielle Morgan can relate. "I feel like I engage in activism every day because merely existing in this black, female body with my head held high is a personal and political act," she says. "I am tired all the time, but much of that exhaustion comes not from being an activist but instead from the social circumstances that necessitate being an activist."

When activism is this immersive – whether it's Crocker's life in the mountaintop yurt, Palladino's work and home life being entirely constructed around her cause, or something in between – finding the balance between the urgency of the work and the needs of a healthy human being is challenging.

"Our activism was constant," Crocker remembers of her teenage years. "The business, our friends, social activities were all centred around activism. Our family vacations would be gatherings, called 'rendezvous', of environmental activism coming together to plan non-violent activities." In Crocker’s adult life, she has flipped this equation for her children. Her activism is one part of her life, not her life.

Young activists might have a particularly difficult time balancing activism and self-care, or may have mentors who teach them that self-care is not allowed. Crocker says that while she is proud of her family's important work, the cost was "enormous".

Taking time to fill up what is being emptied so quickly can be the difference between a life of activism and a brief, bright period.

This article was originally published on The Development Set, and is republished here via Creative Commons


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