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Self-Care Among Activists Is a Public Health Issue

Self-care is a health issue as well as a social justice imperative.

With dangerous racist and xenophobic ideas on display in every major news story right now, activism is as exhausting as ever. That’s why social justice activists are increasingly talking about self-care — tending to one’s own mental and physical state before pressing on to save the world from itself.

While self-care is discussed as a positive act, society usually favors a strong work ethic over self-care, which can result in guilt. And we are not taught by society to take care of ourselves, especially in communities of color. But self-care has a positive impact on the individual person as well as the overall cause, as the activist is able participate in a healthier, meaningful way after attending to their own mental, physical and emotional health. That’s why self-care is a health issue as well as a social justice imperative.

When it comes to the safety and well-being of activist communities, there is a lot at stake. We can point to the murders of activists across the world — including Bangladeshi gay and transgender rights activist Julhas Mannan, Indigenous Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, Guatemalan activist Sebastian Alonso and Afro-Colombian activist Emilsen Manyoma — to remind us of the fear many activists — and communities they work in — live with every day, simply for existing as who they are.

While activist leaders may not always fear assassination, the hate and threats that target activists have direct consequences on the mental and physical health of those who continue to do this work. Dangers include threats to bodily safety, as well as mental and emotional well-being.

We witnessed the tragic consequences of mental health struggles in activist communities when Black Lives Matter’s MarShawn McCarrel took his own life last year. A man who fought tirelessly for a movement to bring awareness and justice to Black lives struggled with his own mental health. While the onus to prioritize self-care certainly falls on the individual, McCarrel’s case also highlights the need for better access to mental health services in communities where LGBTQ folks and people of color, and groups like Black Lives Matter, are literally fighting for their lives.

The impacts do not only fall upon adults organizing and marching in the streets — the impact of confronting oppression every day affects entire families. This is not just mental health; racism and violence tangibly impact our bodies, to devastating effect, across generations. This is evident in the film Unnatural Causes: When the Bough Breaks, which analyzes studies demonstrating that infant mortality is highest among African-Americans, even in families who eat healthily and have higher education levels. The cause? Racism. We also see racial disparities of both infant and maternal mortality for other ethnic groups, especially Native Americans.

Of course, when health issues span generations, it affects the entire community. As a result, many activists come to their work from communities battling persistent and generational patterns. For example, both African-Americans and Latinos have higher rates of mild, moderate and severe depression than their white counterparts, yet receive mental health services at lower rates. This difference is even lower for those at or below poverty level. Not surprisingly, LGBTQ youth are also at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts and suicide.

In addition to mental health, the effects of racism also result in higher hypertension rates among African-Americans, “a serious condition that has been associated with stress and depression” and is linked to accelerated aging in Black men, to name some examples. A Boston University study also linked adult-onset asthma in Black women to experiencing racism.

“Racism is a significant stressor in the lives of African-American women,” said Patricia Coogan, DSc, a senior epidemiologist at Boston University School of Public Health. “And our results contribute to a growing body of evidence indicating that experiences of racism can have adverse effects on health.”

Finally, it’s important to recognize the difficulties activists face that may not be diagnosed by a doctor, yet contribute to mental and emotional hardship that takes a significant toll. Those working toward social justice know the difficulty of collaborating with people, organizations and larger systems that refuse to acknowledge that racism, homophobia and other oppressions are real or are important enough to address. When one’s own identity is subject to these prejudices, it becomes even more difficult to manage. The consistent pushing activists must do to be heard and respected in their work is more than just tiresome, it is unjust and is actually contributes to physical and mental illness.

Mental, emotional and physical well-being are all deeply connected; threats to one can be threats to all, especially if those threats are a byproduct of one’s everyday existence. Activists do their work as a matter of survival, but that doesn’t mean they don’t struggle as a result.

Social justice activists put themselves on the line every day to stand up against police violence, losing loved ones in childbirth, experiencing violence for their sexual orientation and gender, and so much more. While they lean on one another to move through these challenges, it is not enough when matched with institutional forces.

Giving oneself fully to a cause wears down the mind, body and spirit. It becomes especially important for activists to invest in self-care to deal with the stress of activism. We cannot succumb to the guilt we are taught to feel, and we must actively look for examples of how to perform self-care since we do not learn it.

As a community, we need to keep each other accountable to taking care of ourselves and encouraging loved ones to take time for healing. And since many marginalized populations experience mental health issues but don’t have access to culturally competent services, we must point our loved ones in the direction of resources when they’re available, and demand those resources from our representatives when they are not. The deaths of prominent activists are proof of what’s at stake.

Friends, family and community members should recognize the signs of depression in their loved ones to get them the help they need when they need it. This could include professional support like a therapist, but also providing emotional support to help them through tough times. There are online resources available to identify signs of depression, as well as things you can do for your loved ones to support them.

One of the greatest gifts we can give to activists is to be strong supporters. We could all rise to the occasion by giving what we can to the movement and showing appreciation for those dedicated to it. Ask how you can be a supporter of the cause and follow through. If there is a rally going on and volunteers are needed to pass out water and flyers, then sign up to help. Engaging in efforts like these allows activists to concentrate their energy on other pressing matters and take some of the stress off their mind. It’s OK if you don’t have the same passion and drive to fight for the cause. What you can do, however, is to let them know you recognize and appreciate all their hard work and efforts. Words of gratitude are some of the most meaningful ways to support an activist.

As Leatha Wellington, McCarrel’s mother said, “He just wanted to make a difference … I feel like he did so much for so many people that he forgot to take care of himself.”

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