When I was a teenager, I would fantasize about growing up during the 1950s-60s. For me, there was something very glorious, epic, and striking about being a part of the Black Civil Rights Movement. I romanticized that time period more than any other because from it I have gathered strength, determination, courage, empowerment, and inspiration. From this time period, I have learned that activism is revolutionary, appealing, effective, and extraordinarily powerful. Still today, I believe that being an activist, especially one who is willing to give your very life for a cause that is much larger than yourself, is the noblest idea I have ever known.
I have grown since then, and so has my romanticized perspective of the Civil Rights Movement. As my life evolved, so did my ideas and my understanding of activism. Now I’m able to see all the other pieces of activism that I was unable to notice before. Now, I can’t help but to notice the heaviness of rage, or how isolated one can feel within such an immense movement. The hopelessness one may feel as they attempt to fill others with hope and encouragement and the sheer hurt that comes with realizing that one’s own worth and value is conditional, are both unsettling. As said by the great James Baldwin, to be Black and relatively aware in America is to be in a constant state of rage. With that, activism isn’t so glamorous.
I was asked to write this piece as my psychologist self, to address the mental health needs of Black millennials who are dedicating their lives to the “good fight” that is so reminiscent of sixty years ago. Yet, as I write and think about this group of individuals, #blacklivesmatter, and the recent death of MarShawn McCarrel, I can’t help but to see myself as a member of this prestigious yet demanding group. So in a way, I am not only offering up advice as a psychologist to a vulnerable group, but more so attempting to see that my brothers and sisters are taken care of, as we journey down this necessary, noble, yet daunting road called activism.
What is Mental Illness?
I typically do not like to talk about “mental illness” without first addressing mental health. Mental illness is a term that many find intimidating because it implies that something is wrong, unnatural, or “crazy.” Instead, it’s much easier to talk about mental health. Why? Because mental health is natural, something everyone has, and something everyone should prioritize. I like the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of mental health, as it states:
“Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
In contrast, mental illness can occur whenever one’s mental health is assaulted or compromised in any way. Based on WHO’s definition of mental health, it seems relatively easy for one to experience some sort of mental illness (ranging from relatively mild to severe) at some point in their life.
Unfortunately, mental illness is something anyone can experience, yet something that most are afraid to discuss.
What are the mental health consequences of being an activist?
Remember what I said about activism not being so pretty? Part of that includes the threats to one’s mental health that can result from involved activism. It is difficult and uncommon for one to dedicate a considerable amount of their thoughts, actions, and resources to fighting incredible injustice, yet that is exactly what several of us who are fighting the “good fight” do, constantly. Many people choose to remain unaware or oblivious, because it’s much easier to remain “asleep.”
It’s undeniable that activists are strong and incredible people. However, in regards to mental health, we are vulnerable and are more likely to have our mental health compromised due to the tremendous commitment that activism requires. Likewise, the presence of certain risk factors will put us at even greater risk. These include (but are not limited to):
So what does this look like?
Most of us are familiar with terms such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or even post traumatic stress syndrome. However, it’s very common for mental illness to manifest in ways that are not always easily identifiable. This is particularly true for children, men, and ethnic minorities. So how will you know when you or a loved one may be burnt out? Look out for the following red flags:
How to incorporate self-care into your lifestyle.
This does not mean to no longer fight for what you believe in, but to consider how you may modify your life purpose to protect yourself and preserve your mental health. This can be difficult and take some thought, but I was able to do so in this way: One of my greatest passions is the advancement of Black American, which is a large feat. However, to make it less cumbersome, but my ultimate purpose is to inspire others to feel empowered to live their best lives. I do this simply by living my best life and letting that be an example. This is only one of many ways to refine your purpose so take your time and consider what fits best for you.
In the words of the great Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” Remember this very important part of your activism. Take care of yourselves.
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.