Current world events leave many of us itching to create change and make a difference. After all, it’s hard not to feel like something’s wrong, given the mass unveiling of casual everyday brutality in the U.S.
You may want to go out and advocate for the peaceful existence everyone deserves, period. But the frustration, anger, and pain you’re feeling may leave your personal and emotional wellbeing hanging by a thread.
Protesting may exercise pain in a cathartic way, and it can be a healing expression of one’s strongest convictions and grievances–as well as a direct means of getting one’s needs met and one’s human rights protected. The chaos and danger of protesting, however, pose a very real threat to activists’ mental and emotional wellbeing.
This article covers some self care steps activists can take, to ensure their mental wellbeing holds up to the stress test of protesting.
Additionally, consider listening to this podcast episode featuring insights from Dr. Theopia Jackson, President of The Association of Black Psychologists, Inc. (ABPsi). Topics covered include social justice, activism, and mental health in these tumultuous times.
Self-check: are you in a safe emotional state to protest?
If protesting may put your mental state at risk, your voice may be more useful elsewhere. There are lots of other ways to contribute and make your voice heard. (see bottom of page for extended list)
Questions to ask yourself:
Do you feel you have a support network to rely on, and do you know there is someone who can take care of you if you need help? If not, consider helping in some other way.
Will you be able to get the rest and recuperation necessary to maintain your immune health after intense exposure in the crowds?
Do you have a game plan for what you can do to stay safe if harmed or arrested? Consider writing important phone numbers on your arm in sharpie, and familiarize yourself with local resources available to activists in need — before you go out.
If the answer to any of the above is “no,” we beg you not to guilt yourself for staying in! Additionally, those with immune issues or other health conditions may want to consider other ways to make their voices heard.
Familiarize yourself with psychological first aid, or PFA
If someone has experienced violence, threat, or even the perception that they were in danger, they are at risk for post traumatic stress. Regularly check in with your fellow activists. If someone is not emotionally OK after a particularly close encounter, here are some things you can do to make them safer and minimize lingering traumatic effects:
Keep communication calm, prevent frustration overload
As asserted in a Mel Magazine piece, entitled “The Mental Health Technique That Will Save Your Relationships After A Protest”:
“While the act of protest is an exercise of our First Amendment rights, from a clinical perspective, it’s also a collective response to trauma — and that’s hard to turn off when you get home.”
According to Dr. Patricia Celan, as cited in the article: “A traumatized person typically responds with emotional outbursts in order to express that their needs haven’t been met.” It’s ok to have these outbursts, but it may take a greater toll on you, too. Maintaining a state of balance throughout your activism work may help you be more effective in actually communicating your needs.
Dr. Celan provides her technique for communicating your needs, responding to others, and protecting yourself from conflict, which she conveniently calls: DEAR MAN. The concept can be especially helpful after attending activist events, when you’re stuck in an inflamed mood. DEAR MAN is an acronym which stands for:
- Describe: State your position from a matter-of-fact, rather than emotional position.
- Express: Use “I” statements to explain how you feel, without launching the other person into defense mode. They can argue about what they really said or did, but they can’t argue with how they made you feel.
- Assert: Clearly communicate how the other person can better respect your needs. People may struggle to think of solutions to their own behavior — it’s ok to give direction to help someone correct problematic behavior. This is also the time to map out where your boundaries are, and make your expectations clear.
- Reinforce: As bountiful as empathy is in this world, it’s not bountiful enough. Sometimes, spelling out “what’s in it for” others makes them more likely to hear you out. Let them know how their effort will help improve your relationship. Illustrate how societal issues are reduced by the cause you’re supporting.
- Mindful: Stay focused on what you’re trying to accomplish, and how you had planned to do that. Try to check in with yourself repeatedly during the conversation, and assess whether you’re staying on-track.
- Appear Confident: Whether you’re giving or receiving feedback, making or receiving demands, it helps to remain confident and accountable. Approach the conversation head-on, and know the reasoning behind your own position, while remaining open to hearing the other side.
- Negotiate: If you really want to achieve agreement, sometimes you have to get creative and negotiate. The bottom line is achieving the best possible solution — emphasis on “possible.” (Supportiv note: just remember not to sell yourself short on what is possible!)
In the aforementioned interview, Dr. Celan is cited as saying that “people can use DEAR MAN any time they want to make a request or respond to a request — not necessarily in the context of conflict, but to prevent conflict . . . It’s basically a way to communicate effectively on the regular.” This can apply to engaging police in conversation at peaceful protests, or maintaining peace in your relationships, despite the stress of advocating for change.
Keep your goals and next steps in focus
If you’re risking your wellbeing in the moment, to secure everyone’s wellbeing every single day, remember that. Feeling like you have a purpose can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, so make sure to keep your purpose and goals at the forefront of your mind. What steps are you taking to reach those goals, and how can you optimize those next steps for your own emotional wellness?
Let off steam, by talking to people on your side
Activists commit to stay strong while out in the streets, but there should also be a space and a time to tenderly address the fear, terror, and fear driving our activism.
Supportiv is open to those who need emotional support related to their activism. Strict anonymity means the platform can’t be used for organizing; it can, however, be used as a communal coping, grieving, and healing space.
Groups may spontaneously form surrounding specific shared pains. Multiple groups may form at once, in parallel: folks exasperated with society, destroyed financially, or mourning all the lives (especially the Black lives) lost.
Looking for ways to help, instead of activism on the street? This article from WIRED provides a great jumping-off point.