Activist mental health and managing burnout
This page was created following a question received by a person from the HUB community: "How can we take care of ourselves as activists, when the resources and support available reinforce the systems we want to dismantle?" The following are covered: capitalist approaches to mental health, eco-anxiety, eco-whitewashing, individual empowerment, burnout, community care and individual practices within communities. This page will be continuously added to.
In capitalist society
In our capitalist society, mental health is presented as an individual matter and for us to work on or it is treated as a matter to be medicated. That is, responsibility is on individuals and/or their brain chemistry, rather than how systems of oppression are causing harm.
Some of the messages capitalism sells us about mental health include:
- Everything has a ‘purpose’ or goal, including rest (we rest so we can increase productivity)
- Buy this and you’ll feel better!
- If you can’t take care of yourself you’re flawed, or even disposable
In colonial society
Larissa Crawford at Future Ancestors explains:
- When British colonies landed on Turtle Island, they viewed Indigenous societies as being ʻtime-lessʼ, or culturally lacking regularity, order and uniformity). This deemed them ‘inferior.’
- Indigenous Peoples were in relationship to the land, rather than using it as ‘productively’ as British Colonies thought they should. Productivity was defined by the amount that could be extracted to create more material wealth, rather than the value and wealth of health and relationships.
- Today, the legacy colonialism left remains. Time for rest, being on the land, and health-related activities are not prioritized as valuable or productive.
Some questions to reflect on:
- "How does a lack of access to nature impact our mental and physical health? What about when we do have access to nature?" -Larissa Crawford
- Explore what a seasonal work-cycle would look like, by beginning with asking your teams "how does our demand, health, and energy change with the seasons?" -Larissa Crawford
- It could also be beneficial to include connecting with the land as part of our work as activists. "Can we connect with the land and ask ourselves what lessons it holds, and how it can be applied to our work? Can we use this reconnection to strengthen our relationship to the earth, which we are advocating for in our work? Can we use reconnection to strengthen our individual wellbeing and thus sustain ourselves long term?" -Larissa Crawford
Mental health is collective
We live in interdependence with the people and situations around us. Individual mental health and the window of tolerance one has to manage stress is affected by, for example:
- the oppression the individual experiences; includes things like environmental factors in our upbringing or present (e.g. living conditions, access to opportunities, microaggressions etc).
- the difficulties faced by people around them
- the variety of ways our brains function
- our parents upbringing and the influence this had on the parenting we received
Mental health is a collective issue.
Facing the climate crisis
Why seek psychological services if the person I see does not understand what I am going through and is not also trying to dismantle the system in place?
Will going to see a therapist will just make me even more angry? I don't want to educate him on the systems of oppression and the seriousness of the crisis...
The multiple crises that surround us, exacerbated by the climate crisis, awaken emotions that are also influenced by:
|Dominant discourses on the climate crisis|
|Dominant discourses on eco-anxiety||
Saviourism draws autonomy away from these groups, and describes them as powerless.
Focus on the people, groups and systems who are perpetrating the climate crisis and that need to be held accountable.
|Individual responsibility for care
||“People talk a lot about taking care of yourself, but that means doing what you individually can outside of your job while the big structures that reproduce inequality remain firmly in place."- Janey Starling & Seyi Falodun-Liburd |
Countering the dominant discourse
Faced with this reality and these discourses that feed distress, it is important to nurture a counter-discourse that centers the real causes of the climate crisis and the collective action necessary for climate justice. These counter-discourses speak of social movements, popular organization and collective power.
- To learn more about the different components of social movements, see movement ecology .
- To better understand how what you feel is related to the climate crisis, see @environmentalist.affirmations who popularized the content of the book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety by Sarah Jaquette Ray
- See also our page on eco-anxiety.
Burnout is physical or emotional exhaustion caused by overwork or stress according to the Chambers Dictionary. This is a lived reality in almost all militant circles. It can be the result of an imbalance between aspects of our activism and our life.
Here are some causes of activist burnout mentioned by Sophy Banks of Transition Network
The stakes are high, urgent and very important
“…in a society where a portion of the population is causing the problems, the people who feel responsible for solving them may be a small minority with few resources.."
Doing is more good than feeling
If we don't realize how we feel, it's possible that our feelings...
|Giving more value to actions than to the state of people
Only giving value to what is “productive”. This is a form of internalized ableism and it is damaging to our mental health.
|Act according to “heroism”
||Overdoing and not letting other people do important tasks, i.e. not sharing leadership|
|Succumb to time pressure
||“What do we lose when we go too fast and do too much?"'
Systems of oppression create great hardships for each person to go through. If we collectivize care, we include the most precarious people and we learn to use our greatest tool in building a world without violence. 
"Prioritising care is a refusal to abandon oneself and the others around us." 
In the face of the climate crisis and the many social crises we face, we can support each other collectively through community care and a regenerative culture.
Community care is the shared responsibility to offer and receive the emotional, physical and structural support we need in order to live more lovingly and liberatedly. It's also the way we improve our groups to meet our aspirations.
Communal care within a group includes...
- Space to arrive as a human person with personal challenges.
- Building a culture in our spaces and relationships rooted in trust and mutual compassion
Community care is not opposed to discipline or rigor. Instead, we use our energy more strategically because “our battles are too important for any one of us to burn out."  Thus, community care is integral to team functioning so we can carry out our fights with more ease.
Patriarcheal systems today suggest care is largely assumed by women in our societies. If we wish to develop community care in our spaces, this work must be done and organized in an explicit way so that the mental load is not assumed by women and femmes, or by those experiencign other forms of oppression (ableism, racism etc).
Putting community care into action
Bringing the ingredients of a culture of care to life
These ingredients are taken from the article We need a climate movement that addresses the trauma of fighting for a burning planet by Waging Nonviolence.
Note that the actions for the different ingredients described may be different from one group to another.
|Ease *ingredient added by the HUB
This ingredient allows people to take action accessibly; it's less complicated, less energy-consuming, and less reserved for people who know how things work. In a context where many activists tell us that their mental health improves in action, facilitating it has its place as an ingredient of community care in the context of activism.
You can contribute this ingredient to your grop by:
To rest, reflect, recover and heal.
Contribute to this by:
This might include:
Self-reflective questions to raise to help group members advocate their needs might include: What is my body telling me right now, or what has it been telling me lately? What words describe my needs right now? (They can be right now, from today, this week etc).
Encourage diversity of perspectives and respectful feedback.
Create spaces to address different issues (unconscious bias, trauma, feedback and reflection, etc.).
Encourage this by:
Establish a feedback mechanism 
A work team can be mandated to conduct this process on an ongoing basis. Roles related to supporting the process should be clear and ideally, rotating to sharing the emotional load.
- Carve out time at the beginning of your meetings, and before actions and events to pause and reflect on whether there are needs that have been left unmet and to check in on one another.
|1. Space for receiving feedback and needs
Have spaces to take and receive feedback from members on group activities and on people's needs related to group activities.
|2. Evaluation of feedback received
Discuss what the feedback means for the group.
|3. Taking action
Create an appropriate care response for people in the group or community.
Examples: meeting every two weeks rather than every week, creating moments for congratulations, hosting activities, organizing recurring social activities, creating a support and sharing group etc.
|4. Counter resistance
||At this stage, we try to go beyond the old comfort zone of the group to create a new one. Collective effort must be made to support the actions needed to respond to the feedback of the group.|
||Ask whether the action(s) were able to respond to the feedback or the needs expressed.|
What sustains activists around the world
An article by Helen Cox summarizes what activists said they do to support their activism individually (alongside creating community care mechanisms).
Care is a practice
 Offer support groups or sessions
We build relationships, connection and trust in these vulnerable moments. Relationships and holding each other through violence sustain us.
Using the action learning cycle for reflection
Encouraging the practice of mindful awareness
Holding space for open dialogue
Raising power dynamics
Consider decision making processes
Facing conflict and understanding it as necessary for growth
Considering your group's capacity when planning actions
Balacing the type of work you do
|The Netherlands||The Support and Recovey team in Amsterdam offers post-action care suggestions (many of which are also important pre-actions!)
Ground yourself in the restorative power of nature
Check in on each other
Be creative when processing experiences
Incorporate joy in your actions and meetings!
What sustains activists in the HUB community
Here are some responses from activists in the HUB community to the question "What makes you feel good about activism?"
|"Community "||"The interconnection"|
|“Feeling the influence we can have”||“More people are starting to get involved in activism”|
|It can allow you to "free yourself from certain frustrations or anxieties."|
"Hearing from movement elders. It's a reminder these are intergenerational, long-term fights."
Would you like to submit your response? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Other resources and external support
Tiohtià:ke (colonially known as Montreal)