Activism Fatigue & the Mental Aftermath of All of Those Marches
Since Donald Trump took office less than six months ago, women, immigrants and many other groups of marginalized Americans have taken to the streets because their voices are no longer being heard in the Oval Office. But the protesting crowds spilling out of airport terminals have come and gone, and no one’s knitting pink pussy hats anymore –– where does that leave Americans, mentally? Will we be able to summon that same fervor two or three years from now, when this administration undoubtedly proposes legislation just as heinous as the ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries?
So far, this president has managed to cause tremendous upset that crosses racial, socioeconomic and gender lines. One member of the resistance against this current administration, Helene Cohen Bludman, traces her activist roots all the way back to the Watergate scandal, as a result of which she marched in protests as a college student at Georgetown University. She stayed involved by volunteering at local polling booths, but the 2016 election cycle presented an opportunity to resume a more active role by canvassing and phone banking for the Clinton campaign.
“After the election, I felt like something opened up in me that had lay dormant for years, only now it was 10 times as powerful. I felt an outrage that our country had been led into a quagmire by a con man. Now the gloves came off,” she tells SheKnows.
Matthew Miles Goodrich, a Brooklyn-based organizer who founded one of the first fossil fuel divestment campaigns in 2012, had a similar breaking point after the election, but notes a silver lining that keeps him motivated in the resistance: “The election itself was a moment of grief mingled with fear and rage… Now it's a matter of making sure those people (those who showed up to protest following the election) stay engaged –– that's the question that gives me anxiety.”
Goodrich is far from alone in his worries about building a sustainable future of the resistance. Dr. Adam Fried, a clinical psychologist based in Scottsdale, Arizona, describes the difficult mental challenge activism poses for those who commit their time and emotional capital to various causes.
“Activists are more likely to have deeply felt emotional investments and commitments to a lot of social justice causes, which can create a lot stress for them, perhaps because they don’t see things changing as fast as they’d like them to,” he tells SheKnows.
Furthermore, protesters who show up to the front lines of marches (Goodrich says he’s participated in roughly 10 marches and rallies since the election, and Bludman walked in the Women’s March in Philadelphia, as well as immigration ban protests at the Philadelphia airport) are more likely to be the target of police brutality, which Fried says increases stress levels that, if prolonged, are a surefire recipe for what the psychological community calls “burnout.”
The symptoms? Exhaustion, anger, decreased self-efficacy and cynicism. Fried believes that in order for activists to sustain their involvement in healthy ways, they must be mindful of the emotional and physical demands of their work. In the case that burnout symptoms do appear, he emphasizes the need for self-care mechanisms and personalized coping strategies, such as meditation or exercise.
But before things sour and reach that burnout stage, there’s a critical high point for activists that can actually be a great source of mental peace: the feeling of camaraderie.
“Being with others of like mind is very helpful and comforting. I really felt that in the marches I've attended. It feels good being with people who are as outraged as I am,” Bludman says.
A recent New York Times article backs up Bludman’s sentiment, citing spikes in viewership for left-leaning channels like MSNBC in the months following the election. Fried says that following an upset like this election, many Americans might start to believe that while they were once in the majority, that may no longer be the case.
But activism at any level can be reaffirming, he says: “The feeling that you’re not just unhappy but that you, on a personal level, are actually doing something about it, that part of social justice can be very uplifting.”