A Therapist Explains Why Activists Should Take Care of Their Mental Health — and How to Do It
The current wave of protests following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others has been an urgent and much-needed push for change. On a personal level, and especially when it comes to mental health, it can be empowering to experience this sense of unity. But the constant flow of energy and emotion can also become draining, overwhelming, and traumatizing, specifically for Black activists.
How Can Activism Affect Your Mental Health?
Activism impacts your mental health in many different ways. "From a positive perspective, it can be empowering and liberating to experience a collective sense of community," said Shaketa Robinson Bruce, LPC, NCC, CCH, a licensed professional counselor at Open Arms Counseling Center in Atlanta. This is especially true for Black people and other historically marginalized populations, she told POPSUGAR. "Historically, we haven't felt empowered to speak up about issues that affect us," she said. Participating in protests that amplify those voices and those issues can feel freeing and fulfilling, because "you are addressing social issues and racial injustices that matters to you," said Marline Francois-Madden, LCSW, an author and licensed clinical social worker in New Jersey. "What I've heard, specifically from protesters, is 'I didn't realize how much I needed that.'"
But protesters may also experience negative emotions, sometimes alongside these feelings of strength and liberation. That's because activists are working to change injustices that Black people have experienced both for centuries and day in and day out, Francois-Madden explained. "Institutional racism and structural racism have existed for a long time," she said. "Many activists can feel very exhausted during the fight for racial justice."
After protests, Bruce has also heard activists speak of feeling overwhelmed or experiencing emotional breakdowns, feeling sadness, grief, anger, or any combination thereof. Parents in particular may feel worried or afraid, "especially if they're raising Black boys," Bruce said.
Many protesters are dealing with this emotional stress while actively trying to push for change, a combination that can take its own toll. "We're seeing a lot of people come together and a lot of organizing," Bruce said. "But if you're constantly doing that, it can be exhausting." When it all comes together — the emotions, the energy drain, the triggering conversations and videos and social media posts — this work "can be traumatizing," Bruce said. If you neglect your own personal mental health, "it can take a toll that can lead to depression."
How Can Activists Take Care of Their Mental Health?
If you have the passion to do this work, you have to have the passion to take care of yourself as well, Bruce explained, because "a car can't run on an empty tank." If you don't take care of your mental health, you won't be able to create change — but Francois-Madden said some activists may find it difficult to set those boundaries and deal with the sense of guilt that can come from taking a break, as necessary as it is.
Here's what activists can do to boost their mental health:
- Take a break. "You have to recharge and refuel in order to keep going," Bruce said. If you're feeling emotional strain and exhaustion, take some time off from protesting (as well as social media), whether that's a day, a few days, a week, or longer.
- Try deep breathing exercises. If you're feeling anxious, scared, worried, or overwhelmed right now, take 10 deep, slow breaths. This can help ease tension and promote calm, starting from your nervous system and flowing through the rest of your mind and body. You can also try these breathing techniques to relieve anxiety.
- Exercise. Regular exercise can benefit your mental health, and Bruce mentioned that cardio especially can boost your endorphins.
- Meditate. Meditation is really good for promoting mental health, Bruce said. She recommended Liberate, a meditation app for people of color with specific meditations for microaggressions and racial trauma. (Here are more meditation apps you can try.)
- Journal. When journaling for mental health, Bruce recommended writing down how you feel as well as affirmations. "Take time to check in with yourself and reflect on how you're feeling."
- Prioritize sleep. "If you are not getting adequate restful sleep, that can affect your concentration, your energy level, your mood," Bruce explained. She recommended getting eight to 10 hours of sleep, if possible.
- Let go of guilt. Activism is important work, but taking care of yourself is also crucial. "We have to be intentional about our self-care, but also not feel guilty" when prioritizing emotional well-being, Francois-Madden said.
- Talk to a mental health professional. "Seeing someone professionally is definitely very critical right now," Bruce said. She noted that some therapists are offering free groups you can join or other virtual gatherings that give you the space to express your emotions.
The work of activism, while often rewarding, "is very grueling and taxing," Bruce said. "It's important to take time out for yourself in the midst of this. In order to keep going, you have to take care of yourself."