Preserving your peace: navigating activism and mental health
When Activism Takes Its Toll: rights setbacks and their impact
In Only 6 months into 2023, US lawmakers in 46 states have introduced more than 650 bills directly targeting LGBTIQ+ rights1. This phenomenon is not limited to the US but can be witnessed worldwide, with setbacks all over Europe in countries like Italy, Slovakia, or Kosovo and across the globe in Russia, China, or Lebanon. All of this is part of a bigger movement of rights regression worldwide because when democracy is being challenged, minorities’ rights are always the first to go.
With such news on our feeds every day, a feeling of hopelessness has settled. Slow progress is a thing that has always been weighing on activists’ shoulders, but such major setbacks can discourage even the toughest ones.
Activism is a stiff fight, but the study of its effect on people's physical and mental health is still pretty recent. Multiple factors are at play when it comes to its impact: on top of the feeling of slow progress and the losses we can go through which can hinder our hopes and thus our motivation, adds up the very nature of activism. It’s very demanding work, with no financial compensation, the only gratification being the accomplishments we make and the social links we create. It’s also highly stress-inducing, with peer pressure and most importantly self-pressure coming into play. Being an activist also implies subjecting yourself to people’s perceptions and reactions, and thus facing backlash. As most activists are from minority groups and social rights circles are not devoid of discrimination, many also face bigotry and tokenism. All of these factors put activists at a higher risk of stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression. Transgender and BIPOC activists are even more affected by these mental health conditions. To top it all off, the transfer to online activism increases the risks of burnout as it removes the barrier between activism and personal life.
For all those reasons, it appears normal, healthy even, for many of us to step back. To put an end to this constant work, we have all been tempted to answer “Google is free” or “It’s not my job to educate you” when faced with online (or irl!) arguments. While no activist has to always bear the burden of answering every question and be ready to argue at all times, it seems important to note that while we have less and less energy to spread awareness on social media, alt-rights campaigners are vulgarizing their ideologies online at an ever faster rate.
The Activist Dilemma: The imbalance between the “Google is free” rhetoric and the rise of alt-right self-radicalization on the internet
1 Report by the Movement Advancement Project
While governments put their sole focus on fighting radical Islamic terrorism and the pandemic made us spend an even longer time online, something spread exponentially, and if not talked about enough, not so discreetly: Online alt-right discourse.
Indeed, right-wing extremists have been using online space to radicalize people into their bigoted beliefs, namely white supremacy, antisemitism, misogyny, and LGBT-phobias.
What we call alt-right pipelines exposed more and more people, mostly young individuals, to those extreme right-wing views through social media platforms like Youtube, Twitch, or Tiktok. It is ridiculously easy to access alt-right content online, with Twitch streamers like Paul Miller or Millie Weaver, YouTubers like Ben Shapiro or Stephen Crowder, and other online personalities like Andrew Tate. Young boys in particular are fed with far-right podcasts bits cut into Tiktoks they can consume, the algorithms pushing the content to the extreme.
The growing platform alt-right discourse is gaining is no complete coincidence with the rights setbacks we have been witnessing.
With this in mind, it seems more important than ever to put strategies into place to counter the growing presence of right-wing extremism online. If initiatives already exist, thanks to mostly self-organized groups, more needs to be done. We need to push for government policies of regulation, crowdsourcing tools, and we need to take the time to answer or redirect toward trust-worthy sources during online arguments. But putting those solutions in place while preserving our mental health implies finding a balance between those two.
Finding Balance: On boundaries and the importance of community
So what do we do to keep strong and face the challenges we have today while not putting our own health at risk? We set boundaries, we take breaks, we share the work and, most importantly, we rely on our communities.
It’s often repeated yet hardly executed: We need to set boundaries, in every aspect of our life, activism included. We need to say no when it’s needed, need to take breaks when it’s wanted, and we need to learn how to delegate work within our organizations. This last aspect is very important for us women and people that have been socialized as women, as we are told and used to handling everything ourselves. For that, we need a better and more horizontal structure within our organizations, as work repartition is often a big issue and the same people are always making most of the work.
To stay hopeful in times of setbacks, it is also crucial to celebrate every win. There are no small wins, and every achievement should be celebrated and remembered as it is our fuel to keep fighting. Stepping away from social media for some time seems like an important aspect too. I know we’re all tired of all the “digital detox” bullshit, but it does really make a difference, even short breaks. Dedicating time away from our screens every day, or at least from apps where news is shared, is always beneficial.
All in all, if we don't prioritize our well-being, we have less chance of succeeding. It’s by prioritizing our mental health that we can sustain our activism in the long run. And besides all those tips that we can put into place to make our fight possible, the most important aspect of activism will always be community. Having a strong support system to rely on plays the biggest part in balancing our activism and our well-being. We need people around us to share the work with, to vent to, and to fight with. At the risk of sounding like a Carebear, it’s with unity, mutual aid, and support that we can keep fighting and withstand those setbacks.
*image courtesy of Lionelle
- Conner JO, Greytak E, Evich CD, Wray-Lake L. Burnout and Belonging: How the Costs and Benefits of Youth Activism Affect Youth Health and Wellbeing. Youth. 2023.
- Evans, Alexandra T. and Heather J. Williams, How Extremism Operates Online: A Primer. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022.
- Hisam, Aliya et al. "Is Political Activism on Social Media an initiator of Psychological Stress?." Pakistan journal of medical sciences. vol. 33, 2017.
- Schori Liang Christina, John Cross Matthew. White-Crusade: How to Prevent Right-Wing Extremists from Exploiting the Internet. Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). 2020.
- Scully, Aidan. The Dangerous Subtlety of the Alt-Right Pipeline. Harvard Political Review. 2021.
- Velte, Kyle C. 2022 Quietly Set the Stage for a Massive Rollback of LGBTQ Rights. truthout. 2022.
- Mental Health: Dealing With Stress as an LGBTI activist. ILGA Europe. 2020.