6 guiding questions to understand the link between mental health and activism

At the top of the image appears a crowded sidewalk full of people going about their business. At the bottom of the image appears a houseless person sleeping on the sidewalk. Between the two scenes appear the words, "Silence = Violence = A trauma response." The image is intended to draw attention to the connection between mental health and activism.

Earlier this month I was interviewed by Jeannine Etter of KPFA’s UpFront for mental health awareness month to talk about the connection between mental health and activism. In thinking about how to talk about this connection, I was reminded of a moment from the first week of my graduate program in counseling psychology, when I said that a major reason I wanted to become a therapist was because I saw mental health work as social justice work. One of my peers asked for clarification, because this idea was new to her. The short explanation is that trauma is at the root of all human cruelty and dysfunction. Hurt people hurt people, as they say. So learning to deal with hurt is an important part of any effort to make the world a more peaceful and just place. But there’s more to the story, so today I’m going to attempt to flesh out the story of mental health and activism using six guiding questions to focus our attention.

1. Why does activism exist?

  • It exists because there are conditions in the world that people want to change.
  • If people want to change a situation, it’s because that situation isn’t meeting their needs.
  • When our needs aren’t met, we experience emotional pain.
  • If we have painful emotions for a prolonged period of time without adequate support for dealing with them, we can develop mental illness.
  • Many situations that activists are confronting have been in existence for many generations, and thus have contributed to intergenerational trauma.

2. Why do conditions exist that would motivate people to engage in activism?

  • Because other people are engaging in behaviors that are having a harmful (traumatic) impact on them or their loved ones.

3. Why are people engaging in behaviors that have a harmful impact on other people?

  • Because they are reacting to fear and trauma.
  • They are afraid of being unable to meet their own needs, and they see other people as a threat or obstacle to their needs because they have been hurt.

4. Why are some people so afraid?

  • Their life experience, very likely from an early age, taught them that they can’t trust people and that caring for other people is more trouble than it’s worth.
  • The conditions that led to these lessons likely included inadequate parenting and/or a social system that prioritized the needs of certain people over others.
  • Those conditions have characterized virtually every single person’s childhood since the dawn of civilization.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Evidence suggests that many adult diseases and persistent health disparities associated with poverty, discrimination, or maltreatment should be viewed as developmental disorders that are a result of toxic stress in childhood (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2012). Some argue that the untreated effects of adversity in childhood are the greatest unrecognized public health emergency of our time (Burke Harris, 2014).

5. If everyone grows up in such conditions, why do some people end up hurting people while other people become activists trying to stop them?

  • It’s not that simple. It’s impossible to live a full human life without hurting someone else, whether you intend to or not.
  • If certain people end up causing less harm and choosing instead to work to reduce harm, it is because they received a certain level of love and support from their family or community, which helped them stay in touch with their compassion. Research on resiliency factors suggests that a person just needs one safe reliable person in their life while young to develop resilience. Some of us didn’t even have that.
  • Compassion, the pain that we feel at the recognition of suffering and the desire we have to alleviate it, is a natural human trait, but it can be covered over by fear, trauma, and hate.

6. What mental health concerns should activists in particular be watching out for?

  • Activists are often highly compassionate people. Being a highly compassionate person in a world full of violence and conflict is very stressful. It doesn’t just hurt us to see others in pain. It also hurts us to see others causing people pain. This is because most of us grew up with someone in our family system who was not as in touch with their compassion as we were, so when we see violent people causing other people harm, it triggers old wounds from our family of origin. 
  • We can react to pain/trauma by going within or going without. We can go within in ways that cultivate compassion or by withdrawing from life. Likewise we can go outward in violence or in ways that try to rectify the original wound. In helping others, we provide what we needed but did not get.
  • Activism (changing the world) is very difficult, and when you care a lot about doing something that is difficult, you are likely to encounter frustration, disappointment, and demoralization, all of which can have a harmful effect on your mental health.
  • Living in a white supremacist, patriarchal, consumer capitalist culture is stressful to the body and mind, because the very existence of such a social system depends on people being out of touch with their authentic feelings and needs.
  • The wider culture, including close family members of many activists, either disapproves of activism, or refuses to support it, and this social pressure and lack of support is emotionally draining.
  • When you are attempting to do something that you care about, that is difficult, that your family and the wider culture disapproves of or withholds support from, and you are out of touch with your authentic feelings and needs, you risk burnout.

This is a longer post than I usually make, but I’m hoping that the bullet-point format makes it an easy read. Next week I’ll talk about the dangers of ignoring mental health concerns when engaged in activism.


Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds). To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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