This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of New Internationalist magazine.
In 2009, the Iranian Green Movement became headline news as millions of people took to the streets to protest against alleged vote-rigging in the presidential elections. Scenes of green-clad protesters and their brutal repression by the security forces went viral on social media. One of the most iconic, and tragic, videos circulated was of the fatal shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan; it became an internet phenomenon.
Behind the headlines, online activists including Cameran Ashraf, then 29, worked around the clock to spread the information. Based in Los Angeles, Ashraf first heard about the protests on the news, and realized he could use his technical skills to support the movement. ‘I’m half Iranian and my cultural ties with Iran are pretty strong,’ he explains. ‘I just really believed in it. These were people that looked like me, people my age; they weren’t doing anything violent.’ Ashraf says he quickly became highly trusted among some of the movement’s key activists, and was engrossed in hosting services for a website and providing digital security. ‘I barely slept for two years,’ he reveals.
Activists like Ashraf can be repeatedly exposed to traumatic situations as they fight for what they believe in. These experiences can bring on post-trauma symptoms including flashbacks, insomnia, sudden personality change or withdrawal. If these persist, they may develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The British National Health Service estimates that one in every three people who have a traumatic experience is affected by PTSD.
‘Burnout’ has become a common term, but the deeper psychological impacts on the activists are rarely discussed.
Emily Apple is one of the founders of Counselling For Social Change, based in Cornwall, southwest England. In 2014, the group plans to begin retreats to a permaculture site where activists and campaigners can receive therapeutic support.
The organization was partly inspired by Apple’s own diagnosis of PTSD after many years as an activist, including experiences of police violence and undercover surveillance: ‘We’d seen so many people go through PTSD and realized that we are not making activism sustainable,’ she explains. ‘It is opening up that debate and saying that trauma work is actually part of the resistance.’
When experiencing post-traumatic stress, some push away the warning signs that something is wrong. Ashraf explains that this was his experience: one signal came in 2009 when he went to see a new Star Trek film at the cinema. ‘I was a huge Star Trek fan but seeing people laugh was so alien, seeing people enjoy themselves was so weird. I was, like, “What the heck is going on? Happiness is foreign.”
‘I think when you believe in the cause so much, you can actually view these warning signs as deficiencies, as proof that you’re not doing enough. So rather than hearing them, I basically kicked enjoyment out of my life.’
Ashraf began receiving treatment for PTSD in March 2011 after his darkest period. It was a decision that, he says, changed his life: ‘I had a breakdown where I completely went dark for two weeks. I didn’t talk to anybody; I don’t remember anything about that time. I just remember not turning on my computer, not answering anything – but stuff was still going on, people were being arrested… I just lost it.’
Emily Apple says that these warning signs are key: ‘I carried on far longer than I should have done and would have been far better if I had got help earlier, but it took me getting physically ill.
‘When people are being physically tortured by the state, people want to take action; but when you’ve got police harassment, intimidation and long-term psychological damage because of the tactics that they’re using, we don’t take action.’
Theoneste Bizimana is a psychologist and co-founder of the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities programme (HROC) in Rwanda, which provides support to trauma survivors.
He has seen many activists with post-trauma symptoms, including PTSD. ‘There is no support for activists in my region,’ he explains. ‘Many activists fully commit themselves to serving and solving other people’s problems. Activists need time to work on their own trauma and be encouraged to write or tell stories and communicate about their work.’
Emotional first aid
Simon Griffiths is a member of Activist Trauma Support, which was founded in 2005 and provided ‘emotional first aid’ that year to activists during the G8 summit in Scotland, including a missing persons helpline. It also became involved in the Climate Camp movement.
The bulk of Activist Trauma Support’s work is now web-based. It provides information on activism and mental health, and a directory of places where people can get support. It also runs awareness-raising workshops.
‘I think when you believe in the cause so much, you can view the warning signs as deficiencies, as proof that you’re not doing enough. I basically kicked enjoyment out of my life’
Griffiths says that there can be a dismissive attitude towards taking the psychological effects of activists seriously: ‘It’s the kind of work that isn’t seen as being as important as direct struggle. But, on the whole, it does seem like those attitudes are changing.’
Activist Trauma Support encourages campaigners to support each other and take steps to protect themselves. Griffiths says that basic things such as sleeping, eating healthily and exercising are vital but easily forgotten. ‘Although it may sound counterintuitive, keeping a journal can be a really good way of de-escalating things like panic attacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares. A journal allows you to take a measure of control and get some context, as well as making you aware of any patterns.’
Brian Martin is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He believes support networks outside of activism are useful: ‘Sometimes it’s like, if you’re not doing late nights and so on then you’re not a real activist – you’re not committed to the cause.
‘Activism is like any kind of activity: you get ups and downs. Sometimes you’re totally elated, sometimes it’s very depressing because things are going badly. If that’s your entire life, then it can be quite damaging.’
In Shut Them Down! – a book reflecting on the 2005 G8 summit – Activist Trauma Support wrote about how emotional support for activists is an important tool in making state repression less effective: ‘Beatings, arrests, isolation custody, violation of rights, threats, lies… Their focus is on creating fear, getting inside our heads and stopping us from taking action again.’
Ashraf is certain that a better understanding of mental-health issues would build stronger and more sustainable movements. ‘It’s essential for modern movements to survive, especially as many are movements of attrition. For example, you can see it’s going to be a long process in Egypt; it’s going to take a while to get some kind of healthy situation.
‘It’s really vital that these issues be opened up and talked about. The more people do that, the more comfortable people will be. In Iranian culture – in a lot of cultures – any discussion of psychological issues is taboo, so it has been hard.
‘The first thing is to respect what you feel. There is a level of self-disrespect that goes into activism, I really believe that. Feelings that come up, you mustn’t shut them out, because they will help you get through it – and they’ll help you keep going.’