Help for activists

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Help for activists

Activists who see a lot of traumatic situations do not often ask for help – but they need psychological support. This is can be very important for their health. Amy Hall reports.


Stress: not many people talk about the psychological effects of activism. (© Tim Gainey / Alamy)

In 2009, the Iranian Green Movement was in the news. Millions of people protested in the streets because they said people were controlling the votes in the presidential elections. On social media, many people saw the protesters, wearing green clothes, and how the security forces attacked them. One of the most terrible videos was of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot and died.

Many online activists, including Cameran Ashraf, then 29, worked all day and night to spread the information. Ashraf lives in Los Angeles and he first heard about the protests on the news. He knew he could help with his technical skills. ‘I’m half Iranian and I have strong cultural links with Iran,’ he explains. ‘I really believed in it. These people looked like me, people my age; they weren’t doing anything violent.’ Ashraf says many of the most important activists quickly trusted him so he did a lot of work for them on websites and digital security. ‘I had almost no sleep for two years,’ he said.

When activists like Ashraf fight for what they believe in, they can see many traumatic situations. They can get post-trauma symptoms: remembering what they saw, not being able to sleep, sudden personality change or cutting off from the world. These symptoms can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The British National Health Service thinks that about thirty per cent of people who have a traumatic experience get PTSD.

‘Burnout’ is a common word for this type of stress, but people do not often talk about the deeper psychological effects on the activists.

Warning signs

Emily Apple started Counselling For Social Change, in Cornwall, southwest England. In 2014, the group plans to offer ‘retreats’ (rest holidays) at a permaculture site. Activists and campaigners will be able to get therapy and support.

Apple started the organization because she had PTSD after many years as an activist. She had experience of police violence and undercover surveillance: ‘We’d seen so many people with PTSD. We knew people could not continue to be activists,’ she explains. ‘This is making people talk about it. We know that trauma work is part of the fight.’

With post-traumatic stress, some people try not to see the warning signs that something is wrong. This happened to Ashraf: in 2009, he went to see a new Star Trek film at the cinema. ‘I really loved Star Trek but it was so strange for me to see people laugh and enjoy themselves. I did not understand happiness.’

‘I think when you believe in the cause so much, you can see these warning signs as proof that you’re not doing enough. So I stopped enjoying myself completely.’

Ashraf began treatment for PTSD in March 2011. It changed his life: ‘I had a breakdown and I was very very bad for two weeks. I didn’t talk to anybody; I don’t remember anything about that time. I only remember I didn’t turn on my computer, I couldn’t do anything – but things were still happening, people were being arrested .... I just lost it.’

Emily Apple says that these warning signs are very important: ‘I continued for much longer than I should have done. It would have been much better if I had got help earlier, but I became physically ill.

‘When people are tortured by the state, people want to take action; but with police harassment and long-term psychological damage, we don’t take action.’

Theoneste Bizimana is a psychologist. He started the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities programme (HROC) in Rwanda. They give support to people who have suffered trauma.

He has seen many activists with post-trauma symptoms, including PTSD. ‘There is no support for activists in my region,’ he explains. ‘Many activists spend all their life helping others and solving other people’s problems. Activists need time to work on their own trauma. It is good if they write or tell stories and communicate about their work.’

Emotional first aid

Simon Griffiths is from Activist Trauma Support. It started in 2005 and gave ‘emotional first aid’ that year to activists at the G8 summit in Scotland, including a missing persons helpline. It also became involved in the Climate Camp movement.

Most of Activist Trauma Support’s work is now web-based. It gives information about activism and mental health, and a list of places where people can get support. It also runs workshops for people to find out more.

Griffiths says that some people don’t take the psychological effects of activists seriously: ‘People don’t think the work is as important as direct struggle. But, mostly, those attitudes are changing.’

Activist Trauma Support tries to get campaigners to support each other and protect themselves. Griffiths says that basic things such as sleeping, eating healthily and exercising are very important, but people forget them easily. ‘A very good thing is to write a daily journal. This can help with panic attacks, negative thoughts and bad dreams. A journal helps you to control everything, see what is happening and see any patterns.’

Brian Martin is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He believes it is good to have support networks outside activism: ‘Sometimes people think you are not a real activist if you don’t work late and night – you don’t really believe in the cause.’

‘Activism is like any kind of activity: you get good days and bad days. Sometimes you’re very happy, sometimes it’s very depressing because things are going badly. If that’s your whole life, it can have bad effects.’

Activist Trauma Support wrote a book - Shut Them Down! - about the 2005 G8 summit. They wrote about how important emotional support is for activists to make state repression less effective: ‘Beatings, arrests, isolation custody, violation of rights, threats, lies...They want to create fear, get inside our heads and stop us from taking action again.’

Ashraf knows that a better understanding of mental-health issues will make movements stronger and more sustainable. ‘It’s very important for modern movements to survive. For example, it’s going to be a long process in Egypt; it’s going to take a while to get a healthy situation.

‘It’s really important that people talk about these issues. If people talk more, they will be more comfortable. In Iranian culture – in a lot of cultures – people cannot talk about psychological issues, so it has been difficult.

‘The first thing is to respect what you feel. Many activists do not respect themselves. You must not shut out feelings, because the feelings will help you continue.’

Amy Hall is a journalist and editor based in Brighton, England.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).