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Activist Burnout

Below is a piece written by Janiya Brown (class of 2022) for BCC Speech. It was intended for original oratory and is a national qualifier.

I am absolutely in love with Grey’s Anatomy, it’s a cinematic masterpiece, a beautiful emotional roller coaster. Laughing one minute and crying the next. Yet every Grey’s fan has their opinion on the show’s most tragic moment: the plane crash, or Derek dying. But for me it was when the greatest cardiothoracic surgeon to ever grace the halls of Seattle Grace left, the woman who taught us all how to do a running whip stitch on a banana, the woman who helped strategically save her bestfriend’s husband after the hospital shooting. That’s right, the queen herself, Dr. Cristina Yang. I bawled like a baby, and a week later I was determined to bring Cristina back. I worked day and night emailing the writing staff and even created a petition. But after months… still no Cristina! I felt defeated. I was burned out, and I am not the only one. From my fight to bring back a character I loved to, those advocating for trans rights or black lives matter, we have all felt the effects of activist burnout. Burnout is defined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, as the “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.” At this point in time as the world around us continues to fall apart its import that we don’t. It’s crucial that as activists fight for their beliefs they also believe that their health is worth fighting for. So today we’re going to go over the patient chart to find a few possible causes, before we check the blood work and see some effects of burnout. And finally we’re going to write a prescription for some solutions. Because at the end of the day how can we help others if we can’t help ourselves? 

Activist burnout has two main causes. The first is activists see self- care as a luxury. For the majority of activists the work that they do comes from a place of moral obligation, the same way some of us feel obligated to finish the entire greys anatomy series in two days. A study conducted by  Paul Groski, a professor of integrative studies at George Mason university found that some activists view self care as hypocritical because “the people they were advocating [for didn’t]  have those [same] luxuries ”, causing them to feel guilty. This  guilt interferes with self care. Following the supreme court ruling on June 26, which prohibited seven countries, five majority-muslim from entering the states Mohammad Khan worked tirelessly from the moment the decision reached the public. In an interview with Vice, Mohammad told editor Marie Solis that he worked in “hyperdrive pushing out messaging on social media and coordinating with other activist groups” to spread awareness. And finally, at 11 pm, he would go to bed just to do it all over again the next day, because he knew that he had a choice between minimal sleep or allowing the government to harass his fellow brothers and sisters.

Second, while some activists choose to ignore their own health, others are engulfed by the movement’s all or nothing mentality. Within the activist community there’s a toxic culture of perfectionism and martyrdom. This mentality feeds on activists until there’s nothing left but skin and bones. As pointed out by Marie Solis in her article “When Dismantling Power Dismantles You Instead”, Solis notes that “activist groups dismiss the importance of discussing or reflecting upon activist burnout”.  The combination of a standard of perfection and the dismissal of burnout creates an environment in which mental and physical health are placed at the bottom on the list of priorities. Supporting a movement shouldn’t mean sacrificing our personal health.

Jefferson once said every action has an equal opposite reaction, or it may have been Newton but either way they were right, every cause has an effect. The most notable effect of activists burnout presents itself in the activists.  Based on Groski’s 2015 study nearly 73% of activists felt they had endured some serious emotional or psychological health problems as a result of their activism. And the Mayo Clinic has confirmed these feelings, stating that burnout can cause many health problems such as  anxiety, high blood pressure, and heart failure. When we ignore the signs that our body shows we literally begin to wear ourselves out. Building up a movement and belittling mental health only creates misery.

The second effect is that it hurts the movement as a whole. In his study Groski noted that “roughly half the activists who reported experiencing burnout didn’t take time off —they left their movements for good.” When people lose their drive the movement suffers. And all the injustices we are fighting against will be allowed to continue . This summer we’ve seen a spark in support for the black lives matter movement after the hennis killing of George Floyd. And while the movement continues, the momentum has declined as the number of protests across the country have decreased, and the lack of media coverage is no help. To paraphrase professor Rachel Einwohner of Perdue University  the difference between a failed movement and a movement’s failure is the ability to recognize change. We have to protect our voices otherwise violence and the abuse of power will continue. The movement doesn’t make the people. The  People make up the heart of a movement. 

Following the murder of her father at the hands of the police, Erica Garner worked tirelessly to see that the officers be held accountable. Erica’s actions caused her to become an icon within the Black Lives Matter movement. The New York Civil Liberties Union said it best, she transformed her unspeakable personal pain in[to] political power as she became a leader in the fight for police reform After the birth of her son, doctors discovered that she had an enlarged heart which posed a danger to her health. In conversation she said I’m struggling right now from the stress of everything Yet none of that stopped her from spending hours protesting. Her family members urged her to stop and slow down, but  ignoring her family in the pursuit of justice caused Erica to suffer from a fatal heart attack at the age of   27 three months after giving birth to her second child. In the wake of her death,Rev al Sharpton said that Her heart was broken when she didn’t get justice … The [heart] attack just dealt with the pieces that were left Activist burnout is a literal life or death crisis. So what do we do? How do we prevent more people from sharing similar fates as Erica? 

Well in emergency situations healthcare professionals start by looking at the ABC to assess patients- a clear airway, breathing patient, and circulation. But since I like the letter C we’re going to use the three c’s to handle this emergency.  

First, create a coping bank. Everyone requires different things to help overcome their burnout. By keeping track of our feelings in a journal it can actually help to understand how we respond to those feelings. Here’s an example, when I feel overwhelmed I eat a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream with cookie dough pieces because I can use that time to unwind. As Hilliary Retting said, writing can allow activists to rediscover their authentic path and not act out of guilt, shame or obligation.  

Second, let’s change our mentality. We must be realistic, a few months of activism isn’t going to undo the hundreds of years of hate and corruption overnight and it’s not fair to beat ourselves up over it. Rather, use what professor Kokozos of the University of Miami calls a compassion map, which she describes as finding compassion within oneself- with selfcare; as a neighbor-maybe that means helping someone take their groceries up the steps; and in [our] community- that could look like planting a tree in an effort to combat climate change.  Compassion mapping allows for the ability to think globally and act locally as we begin to see ourselves as a part of the movement and not as the single backbone. 

Last but not least, we need community care. In the conclusion of Groskis’ study he suggested that “a collective approach would [help] respond to the activist community’s needs at large”.  This could look like workshops and support groups specifically designed to help activists. By doing so, activists would then have a safe space where their health is prioritized and valued. Reviving the pulse of the movement. 

You know, Cristina once said “Sometimes The Future Changes Quickly And Completely, And We’re Left With Only The Choice Of What To Do Next…” and as we continue to uncover the corruption that exists in our society, we must choose to fight back.  And today after reviewing some of the causes, effects, and a few solutions for activist burnout, it’s clear that as we try to help others we must also help ourselves. Because in the wise words of Dr. Yang “being aware of your crap and actually handling your crap are two very different things”.  We have to choose us. 

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