The personal is the political: Activism and mental health

Political activism poses numerous mental health challenges for those who commit to it – so why do people become activists? 

Activists may be and often are called upon to sacrifice their time, energy and personal resources to the necessities of their respective causes, often while pulling off a difficult balancing act with life’s obligations.

Spend time in activist circles, and it quickly becomes clear that, of the tolls taken by their social change agendas, mental health can be amongst the most taxing, as well as the most overlooked.

In Australia, the slow recognition of an ongoing mental health crisis has seen the issue rise in political prominence, but there has been little discussion of the unique challenges faced by those most committed to bringing about political change, except among activists themselves. 

On an international level, I am often at LGBTIQ+ conferences, and speak to activists about our joint work of diverse SOGIESC inclusion in humanitarian and development contexts, and we end up talking about how busy we are, how under-funded we are, and we talk about burnout. It is now typical to have wellbeing breakout sessions at activist conferences. The topic has also come up in various research[1] within in my work with Edge Effect.  Activists speak of responding to and inciting the increasingly unpredictable developments of our age from week to week, month to month, year to year, protest is followed by protest, followed by petitions, meetings, speeches, articles, press releases, coalition-building, campaign organising, organisations launched or reborn, battles fought and won… Sometimes, with no end in sight.

There are plenty who can sympathise. Today’s movements contain many who have been fighting for social, political and environmental change for not only years, but decades. Many activists are fighting battles without apparent end exacts a toll.

As a young feminist activist in the abortion rights movement in Queensland, I first recognised the effect that activism can have on my mental health. I know of multiple people – myself included – who have experienced ‘burnout’ where we become mentally and physically exhausted. 

Most activists are voluntary and do it in their spare time. That means having to cope with all of life’s other pressures like family responsibilities, work responsibilities, finances, studies, health and that’s before you even try to make time for a social life.

One of my specific challenges is having personal boundaries. I’ve had a problem with saying ‘no’ and taking too much on. There are so many things I want to fight, but after many years fighting for social change, I have come to recognise, that for me,  it’s always better to fight the battles you can fight well. Saying yes to something and letting someone down isn’t fair to you or the person/ community / campaign you promised.

With the way things are, it can feel like we’re constantly fighting uphill and that things aren’t really changing. I often need to remind myself of the victories and recognise the impact we all have however small.

Activists often face the conflict between the sacrifices they are prepared to make, and the possibility that the negative consequences which activism can have on their mental health may make them less effective.

That the mental health challenges faced by activists may be tied more to the systemic issues which render activism necessary, rather than activism itself, has become better understood in recent years. Yet assigning a cause does not necessarily provide a solution.

If you have any sort of left-wing analysis at all you recognise that you can’t solve the problems of mental ill health until we destroy capitalism — and even then, there’s no guarantee mental illness disappears.

In Class Struggle & Mental Health: Live to Fight Another Day, an anthology of activist encouragement and advice produced by, one anonymous contributor writes: “I can’t afford to wait until after capitalism has been abolished to be happy, and I doubt you can either.”

Mental health is an issue that people are aware of and is easy to say you’re conscious of it. But it needs to be followed up with action – not just social media posts.

It’s also important to acknowledge that activism and campaigning are forms of self-care. We don’t do activism and campaigning just for the fun of it – we do it out of necessity.

While few dispute that activism can be psychologically demanding, its potential mental health benefits are more difficult to assess, given the relatively little research that has been done on the matter specifically. A study by the psychologists Malte Klar and Tim Kasser tentatively indicated that, after surveying hundreds of university students, those who identified themselves as activists were happier and more fulfilled than non-activists. However, their research did not definitively settle the question of whether activism causes happiness, or vice versa.

As a hypothesis, however, the mental health benefits are at least plausible. Activism can provide a sense of focus, a means of framing and understanding a world riven with seemingly insurmountable problems and inexplicable realities, and a way to engage with people in a society predicated on alienation.

 “It’s also important to acknowledge that activism and campaigning are forms of self-care. We don’t do activism and campaigning just for the fun of it – we do it out of necessity. We are campaigning to create a world where we have enough money to live off, decent food to eat, where climate change won’t kill us and where marginalised groups are properly respected.

Winning our campaigning goals makes it easier for us to exist in the world, and that is a form of self-care, but alone, is not quite enough. 

[1] Such as my research on Backlash against Women’s Rights and SOGIESC rights activists in Tanzania, Tonga, Sri Lanka and St Lucia and for the Art of Radical Self Care Journal research. 

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