The personal is the political: Activism and mental health


Political activism poses numerous mental health challenges for those who commit to it – but does it also provide unique benefits?

ACTIVISM demands sacrifice. Even amongst those for whom political, social or economic change is not a consuming commitment, this much is generally understood.

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 personal and professional obligations.

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

In Scotland, the slow recognition of an ongoing mental health crisis throughout the nation 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. Given Scotland’s historic legacy of political radicalism, arguably now as evident as ever, such concerns are hardly marginal.

READ MORE: What’s the roots of the mental health crisis?

In a purely national context, recent years in Scotland have produced a generation of activists drawn to political action by both the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis and the still-unfolding consequences of the 2014 referendum. Since their radicalisation, many in the independence and anti-austerity movements have simply never stopped.

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, election and referendum campaigns, organisations launched or reborn, battles fought and won… Sometimes, with no end in sight.

There are plenty who can sympathise. Today’s anti-war movement contains many who have been protesting since Iraq was but a gleam in Tony Blair’s twitching, soulless eye. The story of Scotland’s campaign against nuclear weapons is one of decades. Fighting battles without apparent end exacts a toll.

Rory Steel, a Scottish activist for Catalan solidarity, member of the #SupportSNIC campaign and a familiar face on the pro-independence left, recognises the effect that activism can have on mental health.

“I know of multiple people – myself included – who have experienced ‘burnout’ where you become mentally and physically exhausted,” he explains.

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

“I’ve had a problem with saying ‘no’ and taking too much on. There are so many things you want to fight, but 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 you promised.

“With the way things are, it can feel like you’re constantly fighting uphill and that things aren’t really changing. You need to remind yourself of the victories and recognise the impact you have however small.”

Activists will 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.

READ MORE: Analysis: No stress relief – new findings reveal systemic problem requiring society-wide solutions

Emily Robinson, a member of the recent Edinburgh University occupation and international students representative for EUSA, explains: “One of the biggest struggles as a political organiser with mental ill health is that constant internal battle you wage between wanting to completely dedicate yourself to work that you know will benefit everybody, work that demands that you recognise that you are not the most important person in any equation, and dealing with the demons of mental illness that manifest as low energy and exhaustion, pessimism, and lack of motivation.

“There are a variety of ways to address the problem, and 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.”

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. Even divorced from the context of activism, the role of the post-2008 recession in a surge of mental health problems, particularly amongst millennials, has been widely recognised. 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.” Emily Robinson

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.”

In the short term, what activists can do is focus on establishing good practices relating to mental health in their own environments.

“Practically, political organisations need to focus on better divisions of labour and work cultures, teaching organisers not to be resentful towards those with lower energy and instead recognise that the fact of their class consciousness and willingness to organise is a major victory in and of itself,” Emily Robinson argues.

“We also need to work to mitigate the unfortunate social impacts of hyper-activists. Obviously, it’s incredibly helpful to have people who can dedicate every moment of their lives to organising (and it should be noted that, more often than not, these people come from financial comfort, meaning that the myriad ways poverty disintegrates mental health doesn’t affect them) but having internal cultures that expects that level of constant effort is unsustainable. 

READ MORE: With workplace stress at a 16 year high, UNISON demands a new mental health strategy to tackle the effects of austerity

“A really, really practical way to make political organising more accessible to people with mental ill health is to provide simple, clear training and education. As someone with severe, near catatonic depression, I don’t always have the energy to learn the hard-won lessons that organisers with better mental health have learned over the course of many years, and the idea that that might be a major obstacle to my ability to organise with them means I regularly find myself sitting things out.

“Implementing easy to read and use trainings that explain everything from the most basic administrative tasks of organising (note-taking, event planning, etc.) up to strategies for communicating in high stress, high intensity scenarios would be a major boon to any political organisation.” 

Rory Steel also acknowledges that the attitude of activists themselves can be key in addressing mental health concerns within such contexts.

“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.” Kirsty Haigh

“I’ve met activists – who tend to be older – who get angry when people don’t do the level of work they think they should be doing. Forming a work ethic is part of developing, but it always has to be remembered that activism is voluntary. A good organiser recognises this and should step in to spread workloads if needed.

“Self-care as well as healthy relationships and habits are also helpful. Activists need to learn to say no if they won’t manage and ask for support when they can’t manage.”

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.

READ MORE: New mental health strategy must tackle root causes and be tied to reducing economic inequality, experts argue

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.

Kirsty Haigh, Scotland organiser for the Another Europe is Possible campaign, points out: “Contrary to common belief, self-care isn’t all bubble baths and takeaways – in fact, proper self-care is often about doing the things that are hardest. It’s about addressing the.’demons’ in your life and working through or challenging them. It’s about seeking the mental health support you need and working to improve your mental health, it’s about restructuring your life to make it fit your needs, it’s about telling the people around you and telling them what you need from them and it’s about cutting out people or things that make it harder for you.

“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 minorities 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.”

Picture courtesy of David Shankbone

If you are going through mental health issues of your own and want to talk to someone, Mind offers this guide to helplines and mental health listening services.