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Activist Burnout Threatens Movements and the People that Fuel Them

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Following George Floyd’s murder, social media was saturated with videos of police brutality, pictures of protesters, and infographics on police reform. Over a month later, the topic of systemic racism—and how people respond—has been peeled apart and scrutinized from every possible angle. Black squares filled users’ feeds then disappeared just as quickly as they appeared following accusations of performative activism. Other issues like the Yemeni humanitarian crisis, sexual assault, and the annexation of Palestine have all circulated around Instagram and Twitter. It can be difficult to advocate for absolutely everything all at once, and it can be even harder to determine what is acceptable to post and what isn’t. Moreover, taking too long to decide can lead to cries of inactivity and lack of support, and posting too much holds the potential danger of unknowingly spreading false or misleading information. At what point is it simply all too much?

Temporarily distancing yourself from activism may seem like the obvious solution, but even this proves to be a pervasive challenge. As activists become more educated, their recognition of the problems around them increases, and the sheer quantity of issues produces a stronger sense of urgency. As such, taking a break may be near impossible due to internal guilt, but doing so also makes an activist susceptible to external shaming, since they often receive backlash for “[copping]-out.” Yet, without a proper support system, forcing yourself to stay involved can be hugely detrimental both to an individual and a movement. A study published by the scientific journal PLOS One stated that while activism can actually promote one’s well-being, often activists become emotionally exhausted. Most of those dealing with activist burnout suffer from hopelessness, irritability, cynicism, and lapses in attention/memory/concentration. Physiological symptoms, such as insomnia, fatigue, and high blood pressure are also common.

The qualities that make activism successful are the very same characteristics that produce these major problems. Those who partake in it are usually quite passionate but under too much exertion, and that same passion may be the downfall of a movement. By nature, activism requires emotional labor, but when unrestricted, this produces a “culture of selflessness” wherein the practice of self-care is extremely difficult due to peer pressure. Unable to handle pure and absolute dedication, many activists abandon their cause altogether, and 50-60% of those dealing with activist burnout leave their movement for good, according to a research team from George Mason University. Not only does a decline in supporters weaken the cause, but it sets up younger/future activists for failure since they will not have mentors to guide them.

Some have suggested reducing commitments and making the effort to see the positive outcomes of activism to stay motivated; however, because the major symptoms of activist burnout are psychological, solutions often vary on a case-by-case basis. What’s important to remember is that limited, yet effective and prolonged activism will benefit a movement more in the long run than fervent, declining efforts that eventually grind to an unfortunate and resolute halt.

Through Teen Lenses: How do you think activism has affected your mental health? How do you stay motivated to continue activist efforts?

“As the police brutality and racism that has been occurring for hundreds of years is being highlighted on social media and out in the real world, it becomes even harder to step back from social media and keep a balance between life online and life offline. I’d say that setting strict boundaries for myself… and confirming that I’m not always connected has been really helpful. I… [step] back when I need to and constantly [learn] from others who are also engaging in activism work.” Matt Baird, 17, Rising Senior at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, Sudbury, Massachusetts
“I can become anxious and overwhelmed… it’s almost as if how much you post determines how much you contribute… I research and research to stay informed… I meditate… [I] support certain organizations/businesses, read books/watch movies related to the issues at hand, and really just try to educate myself as much as possible. I feel very strongly about certain issues and I never want to stop shedding light/information, holding discussion, and proving [sic] opportunities to get involved. I don’t want things to die out. So I… remember the privileges I hold and that I can use to help.” Kavya Mishra, 18, Rising Freshman at University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland
“I think the part about social media activism that can get toxic to our mental health is the combination of its constancy and brevity. It is extremely overwhelming to be overloaded with information in short, concise graphics where perspectives seem to collide… it’s like this situation of a constant flood of information in brief, not fully fleshed out posts… It’s hard to know what to listen to, which perspective is right, and the pressure to share and appear a certain way… Social media activism isn’t enough, and there’s things we should all be doing completely separate from social media. It’s a good idea to think about social media activism as a subset of activism, but not encompassing of all that we can do.” Meghana Kotraiah, 18, Rising Freshman at University of Maryland, College Park, MD


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