Mental Health Risks For Political Activists

We’ve heard of mental health risks for trauma victims, models, high-performance athletes, people in the public eye, soldiers, executives, people living in poverty, and many other social demographics. As a political activist who studies and works in healthcare, is currently on a placement in a mental health unit, and has had personal struggles with mental health issues linked to depression, anxiety and emotion regulation, I have come to believe that political activists may represent another identifiable group at elevated risk for a series of  mental health issues.

Are Any Identifiable Groups Not At Risk?

Before getting into possible links between having a political activist orientation and mental health, I’ll wonder out loud if there are many lifestyle orientations that would not be linked to their own respective clusters of mental health risks. Just as I will argue that an activist mindset may be a statistical risk factor for certain types of mental health issues, one could make similar arguments for other mental health issues with respect to readers (statistically speaking, perhaps readers are more likely to have avoidance issues), housewives (see readers), people who live in houses (again statistically speaking, perhaps these people are more likely to be afraid of heights than the average person), and so on.

On the flip-side, it is highly plausible that activists are at reduced risk for certain mental health issues. For example, they may be less likely than the average person to feel a lack of purpose in life, or to lack courage or tenacity to fight against opposition. Likewise, readers may be less likely to have concentration difficulties, housewives may be less susceptible to boredom and/or be better at entertaining themselves, and house dwellers may be better at keeping on top of many priorities without getting overwhelmed (living in a house comes with more domestic chores than living in an apartment).

Is An Activist Orientation A Mental Health Risk Factor?

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

- From The Serenity Prayer, by Reinhold Niebuhr

The Serenity Prayer is frequently cited in mental health settings and within the pages of self-help and mental health literature. The ability to accept that which one cannot change, courage to act when positive change is possible and the ability to distinguish between the two are core goals of many clinically-validated mental health therapies, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT).

As stated above, courage to change that which can be changed may be a strength among many activists. If they did not believe that they could facilitate change they probably would not have pursued activism in the first place. If they didn’t have tenacity, they probably would not have lasted long. Of course, I’m speaking very generally, here. It’s entirely possible that some activists, while fiercely pounding the pavement for a valued political issue,  may be loathe to directly confront other, more personal issues.

Where I fear that fellow activists might, on average, be at elevated risk is when it comes to accepting that which one cannot change. In some avenues, a refusal to accept things the way that they are is an admirable quality of activists. While one person’s freedom fighter may be another person’s agitator or even terrorist, we tend to admire tenacity in those whom we view to be fighting the good fight. And perhaps less easily, many of us have a genuine respect for tenacity and earnestness of activists advocating on the other side of issues we value. All of this said, there are certain things that we simply cannot change. Of central importance,

We Cannot Change People’s Minds For Them

In a democracy, change is created by winning hearts and minds. Often times, people can be very reasonable, honest and can see eye to eye on something. However, when it comes to politics, not everyone is reasonable, not everyone is honest, and even among those who are, not everyone acts on the same underlying values.  A progressive and a libertarian can be equally honest, reasonable and good-intentioned but still remain at an irreconcilable impasse on whether the rich should be forced to subsidize social programming for the less affluent. In this situation, the activist’s tenacity can hurt them. If the activist is unable to accept and live with the fact that the other person may never change his or her mind, the activist is destined for a world of emotional suffering.

It will often start with anger (our emotional system’s response to frustration in obtaining a goal), but can lead in time to helplessness, hopelessness and despair that one is powerless and that change will never come. Hopelessness is a leading red flag for suicide risk.

Just as emotional suffering can result from continually failing to win over a political opponent, it can also result from failing to get other people to care about the issue like you do. No matter how much an activist cares or tries to convey the importance of an issue, most others are not going to take up the cause. In a way, this may induce more despair than failing to win over an opponent. At least the opponent cares about the issues and realizes that it is important and worth fighting for. Is there anything more infuriating and disillusioning than watching people who you want to believe are good people just standing there doing nothing while something awful is happening?

Few things call into question one’s confidence in the goodness of mankind like apathy in the face of injustice.

Anger, Disillusionment and Social Estrangement

Anger and disillusionment over the inability to get others on board what one views as a critically important moral mission can be devastating. If an activist is not able to accept that they may never succeed in persuading others, or if they cannot help but feel helpless, or that the world is hopeless or that other people are hopelessly wrong or indifferent, they are inviting a whole new problem on top of what may already be a full plate: social estrangement. In addition to compounding the activist’s problems, this simultaneously withdraws critical sources of social support. This can be dangerous.

Final Thoughts

Activist goals aren’t your typical goals. They can be of transcendental religious-like importance to the activist’s worldview and senses of justice, meaning and purpose. Thus, frustration of these sorts of goals has the potential to deeply unsettle much of what keeps the activist together. This in itself is a huge reason for activists to have sympathy for activists on the other side of the the dispute:

“Be Kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”

- Plato

In sharing these ideas, I have spoken not simply as an activist that works in healthcare, but as a person that has personally experienced every pain and problem discussed. I have experienced the anger, helplessness, hopelessness, despair, and estrangement. While most of this is a thing of the past for me, finding and maintaining the right balance for me and striving to accept that which is out of my control and finding effective ways to work on those things that I can affect is an ongoing process.

In my current Occupational Therapy placement in outpatient mental health working with people struggling with their own issues with depression, anxiety and emotional dysregulation, I have learned that the types of experiences that I have had are far from unique to me. In reading up on Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – a condition whose hallmark attribute is impaired emotional regulation – I was not surprised to learn that people with BPD are more likely than the average person to gravitate toward social/political causes. My personal experiences and learning on placement compelled me to share my concern with other activists.

If you are an activist, all the credit in the world for standing up for what you believe in. But be wary of the temptation and risks of not being able to come to terms with the fact that you can only control what you do, not what the other guy does. You can be honest, reasonable, and earnest in your attempts to persuade others and to see the world from their perspective, and these are all good, noble things. But you can’t change anyone’s mind for them.

You can be the change you want to see, but you can only be it for you.

Feedback?

I’m curious as to whether anyone else can empathize with the ideas and issues discussed in this post. I’d love to hear what others have experienced or have observed others to have experienced. Given the personal nature of this sort of thing, feel free to leave anonymous replies.

Depending on whether readers express interest (i.e., in the Comments section), I may do a second post on avenues for help and strategies for dealing with the sorts of emotional issues discussed here.

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3 thoughts on “Mental Health Risks For Political Activists

  1. Pingback: Kicking Addictions: Commentary on What It Takes and What Helps « Death By Trolley

  2. Very interesting essay Ron. I too have been a political activist ( much more so in the past) and can attest to the veracity of your arguments. As we enter the silly season here in the USA, I tend to get HIGHLY neurotic. Culturally speaking, the USA seems to put much stock in a kind of narrative that portends either heaven or catastrophe, and attempts to answer these extremes with either flim-flam or a given political ideology. Regardless of point-of-view, the rather bi-polar nature of this thinking seems to cloud more creative perspectives, discourses, solutions. During the thick of the Bush years, post 9/11, I basically stopped reading the news and it helped me– it made me a personally more content person. I used that time to change my personal health habits and work on local political issues ( union work). I applied a kind of “strategic apathy.” My reasoning was thus: “my ruminating over the social and political catastrophe of the day will not necessarily change it, so why should I expose myself to this negative crap if all it does is paralyze me personally.” Mind you: I did not stop caring about the issues, but I did not take all of it so personally. Anyway, I thank you for this blog. Even though it is a year old, it is still relevant and it is one of the more intelligent and thoughtful assessments of this question I have encountered online. I thank you.

    Ian
    New York City

  3. For many years I was an activist in green and animal rights issues, and campaigned long and hard for animal rights. Went to conferences, watched all those horrific videos, wrote, campaigned, marched, leafleted and everything else we did. I lived it, breathed it, put my whole heart into it. There was an effect of course, and being unaware that I was stretching myself way past my limits I burned out, feeling that all my commitment and passion had been pointless. It hadn’t, of course, but that’s not how it felt at the time.

    Nowadays I cannot, just cannot, watch those videos of animal cruelty. I cannot read about it. I know that if I do, having lost that “buffer” of objectivity that gave me the fight and energy to campaign all those years ago, the horror of the reality will send me into a dark place and a depression that can get dangerous.

    However, I learned something from this. We have to protect ourselves, to give ourselves a little distance between what we’re campaigning for and our sanity. You’re absolutely right – we cannot change people’s minds for them, and we have to accept that. We can only do so much. We can put all our passion and energy into something we believe in, we can pound the streets and talk to a million people, but there has to be that small part of ourselves that we retain for our own sanity and peace of mind.

    Thank you for this timely reminder. Currently, I and thousands upon thousands of others are working hard for independence in Scotland. It’s good to “check in” with oneself, regularly, to make sure the engine is still running sweetly. Eating properly, sleeping enough, having time for ourselves and those we love and connecting with that part of ourselves that drives who we are as people committed to a particular cause or belief. :-)

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