Mental Health and Activism: Reflections from a Pandemic
Since the onset of COVID-19, burnout, mental health and self-care have become prevailing topics. Among activists, this discussion is long overdue. As an activist field, how can we usher in a more fundamental shift – the move from buzzwords and band-aid solutions to a system that genuinely cares for people’s wellbeing?
As people moved en masse to remote working last year, many lamented the fact that while life as we knew it was crumbling around us, working hours – and expectations of our productivity – went largely unchanged.
In activist circles, like digital rights, the pressure has added layers – something we discussed at length at our annual strategy meeting earlier this year. The pandemic joined a stack of other crises already in full swing, throwing up a host of new issues to tackle, from sweeping mass surveillance to an uptick in online disinformation.
People working in fields like human rights are naturally driven by social responsibility and visions of a better society, but when the problems are infinite, how do we balance activism and taking care of ourselves? It’s all too easy to feel that we can always be doing more, creating a vicious cycle of overworking that filters through workplaces and mindsets.
On the surface level, we talk wisely about taking care of ourselves and avoiding saviour complexes – but the impulse to push ourselves beyond our limits is baked into the structure of our working world
On the surface level, we talk wisely about taking care of ourselves and avoiding saviour complexes – but the impulse to push ourselves beyond our limits is baked into the structure of our working world. A morning yoga class or a day off here and there isn’t going to defeat the exhausting mental burnout that’s built up over years or decades. As such, the trend of organisations offering “wellness vouchers” for bath bombs, or self-care information sessions during office hours has been much derided. A more radical rethinking of how we work and conduct activism is sorely needed.
Pressure and precarity in academia
Academics, who help build the evidential core of much activism, are an at-risk group. A notoriously precarious sphere, the dearth of stable contracts and reasonable working hours fosters a culture of overwork, intensive competition and unrealistic expectations. Financial stress and job uncertainty are two key ingredients in burnout. But the pressure to continue at a superhuman pace – even when entirely out of kilter with paid working hours – is unrelenting when there’s research to publish, papers to mark and equally exhausted colleagues to support.
For digital rights organisations this may also mean that the academic support network we rely on, diminishes or dries up. This is understandable. Can we really ask people to add yet another task to their day, when we are already aware of their overflowing to do lists? But where does this leave us in terms of promoting our causes?
…the failures of the system are internalised by the individuals who, spurred by feelings of inadequacy, are pushed to work even harder
Overworking has become the new normal, with the shaky system exploiting people’s genuine passion for their field. Things are even worse for marginalised groups, who are more likely to get passed over for promotions or experience discrimination within old-fashioned structures of systemic injustice. In turn, the failures of the system are internalised by the individuals who, spurred by feelings of inadequacy, are pushed to work even harder.
The demands of digitalisation
The rise of digital devices and remote working has further flattened the distinction between work and home. As a society, we’re all struggling to get to grips with how swiftly electronic devices have changed our everyday lives. For organisations, digital technologies have the potential to boost productivity in unprecedented ways, but as individuals it is becoming nigh-on impossible to switch off.
Our phones are attached to us for most of the day, and the “one more email” mentality can be difficult to shake – especially when everybody else is doing it. The expectation that we’re constantly available and can respond quickly to every message has become wholly normalised.
Our social media lives only add to this by presenting us with the lives of others, who always seem to manage the pressures of daily life so much better than we do. Who doesn’t have that friend or colleague, who used the pandemic to write a book or set up a side hustle? Imposter syndrome is real, and it is all around.
Our phones are attached to us for most of the day, and the “one more email” mentality can be difficult to shake
Even in fields like digital rights, where people are hyper-aware of the risks of digital technologies pervading our lives, opting out of norms such as owning a smartphone or avoiding social media is rarely feasible. Building a life around our devices and carefully curating polished and impressive professional profiles on social media are par for the course. For many activists, this also means facing reams of online abuse and harassment – problems that, again, disproportionately affect certain groups more than others like women and people of colour.
Is talking enough?
We have started to break down the walls around the way we talk about mental health – and that’s indisputably a positive step. Talking may not be enough on its own, but it is, of course, a key part of effecting greater awareness and new approaches.
But we’re still far from open books: the nuances of psychological health are still poorly understood by many, and people naturally fear that admitting their struggles will lead to repercussions. Many mental health conditions, from trauma to depression to schizophrenia, autism or ADHD have been horribly misrepresented in popular culture, resulting in a lot of false assumptions and a grave silence around the topic. Of course, people shouldn’t feel forced to disclose personal information to colleagues if that’s not what they want, but breaking the taboo around sharing remains essential.
…the nuances of psychological health are still poorly understood by many, and people naturally fear that admitting their struggles will lead to repercussions
It’s not just a matter of external circumstances either: many mental health problems inherently feed on internalised shame, driving people to self-isolate and bottle up. For this reason, the old adage of “just talk about it”, while well-intentioned, doesn’t quite cut it.
As is often the case with activist struggles, change needs to be substantial – not just a flashy marketing stunt – and target the roots. How can we enable activists to do their best work, flourishing as individuals in a way that accounts for their personal needs and circumstances? As activists, how can we genuinely communicate to people, not just in words but in deeds, that their limits as people are respected – and that being superhuman isn’t required?
Sometimes people need sustained periods of rest, so can we build that into our systems of work? How can we set better boundaries between work and time off, avoiding the unspoken pressures to go above and beyond formal expectations? When people need professional support, can we support them to seek out therapy – and not just for a month or six weeks, but for as long as it’s needed (which may be years)?
As is often the case with activist struggles, change needs to be substantial – not just a flashy marketing stunt – and target the roots
As activists, we still have a way to go before we overcome the outdated notion of working our fingers to the bone to save the world. It’s a problematic idea in more ways than one, and for our psychological well-being, it’s truly toxic. It’s time to acknowledge our limits and, as only we know best, demand change in how we approach our mental health.