Self-care without community care isn’t possible

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

Self-care is a hot topic right now. In fact, a $10 billion industry has been created around self-care – everything from aromatherapy to Zumba to chakra stones. The self-care movement is being seen as white, global north and as something that only middle or upper class, communities can access. This is because self-care for people isn’t always possible, and self-care seems especially hard for those (mostly women) who are often burdened with mostly unpaid (or underpaid) and unacknowledged care work.  Not to mention all the emotional labour – but that is another blog post. Often times, we’re juggling a million things, we’re constantly on call, or we’re working 8+ hour days in low-paying non-profit jobs, often doing activist work on the side. Some of us have families, so, when people tell us to take care of ourselves, we struggle to understand what that actually means. 

The truth is that self-care alone is not enough within activist communities. A few months ago, Nakita Valerio, a Toronto based community organiser, published a post on Facebook that went viral:

“Shouting ’self-care’ at people who actually need ‘community care’ is how we fail people”.

We could argue that community care has existed in communities for thousands of years. After all, most of us grow up being told that we’re supposed to take care of our family or our community. But what happens when we’re not taken care of? What happens, for instance, to a community activist who is sandwiched between taking care of their parents (and in-laws), their children, doing their activist work and works full time to financially support themselves and their family? Who is there to take care of them if they feel like they doesn’t have the time to take care of themselves? Or, for those who live with an illness or disability? 

That’s where community care comes in. The concept of community care is a group of people (think of it like an extended family) who commits to supporting each other, is accountable to care for one another, holds space for each other, and creates areas for community care. It means showing up for one another. It can look like this:

Self-CareCommunity Care
Eat healthier foods  Organise for a meal preparation element to your activist meetings. For each meeting one, or two of the members can take turns to make a healthy vegetarian meal for the whole group. That way you are easing the burden of finding good healthy food after a long day, making sure your activist meeting is also nourishing the members.  
ExerciseHave walking meetings that take you and your social change peers outside. Not only does getting outside and moving your body help ease stress, but walking side by side rather than sitting across from each other also creates more opportunities to eliminate power relations. 
Reduce your technology and get off social  media.  We all know that social media plays a huge role in activists organising and campaigns. But you can create boundaries around when you answer texts/ emails / social media messages. Let your comrades know when you will and won’t be checking your technology. (i.e. – I am offline after 8.30pm of a night) 
Join a new class Create a free event where people gather to share their skills. Sharing skills creates access to practical knowledge and a sense of purposeful belonging. Your event can be focused on one specific topic, with a plan, organized contributors, a schedule, activities, supplies, and more; or it can be an open gathering of people who simply want to share what they know “how to do” with each other. Bring people together, relaxing and learning new skills. Skill sharing can networks and move our community towards self-reliance and resilience, as well as create a fundamental sense of ‘can do’ and feelings of positivity, creativity and empowerment. Skill sharing also can establish and nurture links between old and young as skills are passed on. Organise practical and useful events or work with existing groups in order to share and draw on local skills. 
Get social, meet a new friend or schedule a coffee date/dinner with your friends When you catch up with your activist friend, remember to listen. Ask them how they are doing then let them guide the topic or conversations… and steer clear from giving advice unless asked!!!  
Take a bath Offer to look after your comrades’ new baby, to free up some time for them to have an uninterrupted shower/bath. Get a cup of tea ready for when they get out! 
Turn on uplifing music and dance Make a playlist of activist songs or podcasts for your comrades who are really busy. Give the list or links for them to listen to as they are commuting or when they have some spare listening time during the day.  
Write daily in a gratitude journal Write a sweet message in a card telling your friend how grateful you are for them and what you admire about them. Remind them how they are doing a great job and how you value the change making work they do.
Get creative and design a vision board that will keep you focussed on what’s important Get together with your comrades and think about creative activist interventions. Check out Beautiful Trouble for some inspiration. 
Clear your schedule for a day of rest Respect people’s boundaries and don’t push them for work or commitments they can’t keep. Ask your comrades who are working on campaigns with you if they are scheduling any rest days and help them follow through on that commitment. 
Put your health care first – don’t miss your annual check-ups with your Dr, dentist, optometrist etc Offer to help community members with additional support they may need with accessing heath care. Do they need a lift to or from a doctors? Do they need childcare so they can go and focus on their own health needs? 
Cut something out from your schedule Offer to run an errand or do a household chore like picking up the grocery shopping, popping by the post office or folding some laundry to take some of the pressure off of those community members who are needing additional support.  

The need for community care within activist communities (and communities in whole) is more crucial now than ever before. Our comrades are burning out at extremely high rates. Few individuals want to step into leadership positions and those who do, wind up staying for less time than their predecessors. Self-care alone won’t resolve these issues because self-care alone doesn’t end systemic oppression or injustice. But by creating cultures of community care, we can watch out for one another. We can be there for each other. 

The Cost of Compassion: A reflection on vicarious trauma among human rights defenders

By Shelby Ankrom

For those who dedicate their lives to serving the world’s most vulnerable, human rights workers are increasingly becoming some of the most at-risk groups for developing mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). While these extraordinary people are busy helping others, who helps them? Who is ensuring their well-being and mental health? For example, seeing and listening to stories of traumatic events such as torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, genocides, and crimes against humanity has the power to create lasting psychological damage. Even if someone has never personally experienced such events, mental health issues arising from simply being exposed to those who have, is enough to create vicarious trauma. This is a particular type of trauma that is acquired through the exposure of working with people who have experienced trauma, hearing their stories, and becoming witnesses to the pain and suffering that trauma survivors endure.

The Headington Institute, an organization providing mental health services to aid workers, describes empathy as one of the primary contributing factors of vicarious trauma. Human rights workers, tend to be compassionate and empathetic towards other human beings, particularly those in distress. When we open our hearts and minds to survivors of trauma, we also have the tendency to envision the described traumatic experience as if it had happened to ourselves, as a way to truly understand the survivor’s point of view. Yet, this method of emphasizing with others opens us to unintended, and potentially lasting psychological impacts. Dr. Laurie Pearlman of The Headington Institute recommends that when listening to survivor’s stores of trauma, it is better to understand how the particular person, or group of people, experienced the event, rather than imagining the event happening to you. More importantly, it is best to focus on human resiliency – how the individual survived the traumatic event through their strengths and resources. Remembering our roles, whether as professionals or volunteers, who are there to accompany and help others, rather than to take on their burden, can help mitigate some of the vicarious trauma acquired through the work.  

In his book, That the World May Know, James Dawes explores the burnout and mental health of United Nations workers interviewing refugees to determine if they can be granted asylum. Repeated exposure to stories of extreme distress from the refugees, these UN workers found it difficult to cope with the vicarious trauma that they experienced from listening to such experiences. Indications of vicarious trauma can include depression, anxiety, and high rates of job burnout, leading to even higher rates of turnover.

For the most part, concern about vicarious trauma and well-being has been directed toward humanitarian workers, particularly those working directly on the ground, typically in war-torn areas. As such, most of the literature surrounding mental health in this field is about these particular groups of workers.

More recently, the advent of social media and a continual stream of eye-witness content (also known as user-generated content) captured and posted by smartphones, has created new challenges for the range of people who may be affected by vicarious trauma. Repeated viewing of disturbing images and videos may be exposing human rights workers, journalists, and others to mental health stresses which can result in serious conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

study conducted by Eyewitness Media Hub found that the majority of employees who view disturbing images regularly in the workplace, have no organizational support, or even feel comfortable seeking out a manager for help. They noted that the human rights and humanitarian field has a “toughen up or get out” culture that makes it difficult for people to seek help or talk about the mental health issues that accompany this type of work. Furthermore, the study found that many managers in the aid sector do not take vicarious trauma seriously, or will flat out deny its existence. While those working in the field and on the frontlines of war-torn regions receive extensive training about how to deal with such situations, those working desk jobs in comfortable headquarters are often given no warnings about the kind of disturbing images they may view as part of their work. They are not provided any type of training on how to deal with it. Yet, it was found that desk-bound humanitarian and human rights workers tend to view on a repetitive basis more distressing and disturbing images than their on-the-ground counterparts. As most of these workers are not involved directly with survivors of trauma, they do not witness the human resilience needed to help heal and move forward.    

Currently, very few organizations offer any kind of mental health support, counselling, or benefits to help their employees cope with the stress and traumatic nature of their work.  High turnover rates and burnout tends to plague the humanitarian aid industry as a result. Organizations need to understand that the mental (and physical) health of their workers is synonymous with the quality of care they are able to provide their beneficiaries.

It is essential to recognize the common signs of vicarious trauma in order to take action to address them:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Cynicism or negativity
  • Loss of faith in humanity
  • Feeling disconnected or isolated
  • Social withdrawal
  • Feelings of grief, anxiety, or sadness
  • Headaches
  • Nightmares
  • Loss of empathy
  • Diminished sense of personal safety
  • Loss of sleep
  • Spiritual disruption

Some self-care practices that have been found to be helpful:

  • Creating a support group among colleagues at work
  • Seeking out professional counseling
  • Maintaining a healthy work-life balance
  • Regular exercise
  • Reevaluating and/or reducing workload
  • Doing things that are relaxing
  • Taking enough time off work
  • Read enjoyable books
  • Interacting people in our social networkers
  • Finding an appropriate balance of work, rest, and play.

Human rights activists and their organizations face additional challenges. It is important to recognize the difficult, and at times, life-threatening conditions under which many human rights activists conduct their work in countries around the world. Compounding the impact of vicarious trauma, many human rights activists are coping with their own trauma as well as ongoing attacks and harassment on themselves and their organizations. This condition is recognized as continuous traumatic stress (CTS) and requires significant attention.

Matcha’s Self Care Journey

By Matcha Phorn-in

*Content includes references to sexual assault and hate crimes.

Before I go to bed tonight,
I have some questions, do answer if you come across this post.
It’s very important for me.

If you are my Facebook followers
You maybe wonder, why I post so many outdoor activities. Mostly it’s about my exercise routine in the past year.

The reality is like many other LGBTIQ Women Human Rights Defender’s (WHRDs), I faced post traumatic stress disorder as a result from my personal experiences as a survivor from sexual assault – and my experience as a survivor from hate crimes in retribution against me as a lesbian women human right defender.

I am trying to survive in very difficult situations like other WHRDs who faced the same challenges, but I also want to expanded my experiences a little bit by trying to develop it as a framework that can be implemented at all levels. 

Ideally I would like to establish a wellbeing program for young feminist activist. Unfortunately it is impossible because my organization faces financial challenges. We can’t afford it and/or establish it as a program, therefore we are trying to do it our own way with zero budget.

Here is how you can be involved.
If my Facebook posts influences you at any level including: at a personal, organisational and/or movement levels – I would like to hear from all of you. I would like to hear what has influenced you – as I have now completed a year long wellbeing practice, with zero budget, but full of commitment. 

I hope to hear from you because it will help me to reflect on what I can do in very limited conditions, but as the same time my biggest dream is to establish it as a program for necessary for young feminist activist/HRDs. 

Thank you in advance 

Matcha Phornin is a friend and activist. She is the founder of Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project in Thailand. She is a board member of International Family Equality Day, and on the board of ILGA Foundation at ILGA ASIA and APWLD – Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development. She is also the Country Coordinator at V-Day. You can follow Matcha’s wellbeing journey via her facebook page

A photo of Match practicing yoga in the early morning.

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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