“People say that I am a rights-based worker, but I really do not know whether I am an activist or a voice raiser. I ask for my rights. Maybe that is called ‘activism’ work,” Sobha Madan tells me when I ask her about the ‘why’ that motivates her work. Sobha is the District Coordinator and Area Secretary of the Nilgiris Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups Federation (NPVTGF) in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu. She also heads the Adivasi Youth Forum, a collective she launched for young Adivasi women and men of the Nilgiris in 2016.
“We start from the beginning, from the basics,” Sobha says about her work at the NPVTGF. “From making [illustrated] books on the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), to creating 14 Gram Sabhas in Gudalur under the FRA, to working as a Tribal Development Council Member at the state level, to ensuring that funds reach us, to creating curriculum for our evening schools in our own languages, to training tutors and regularly following up with them. We do everything.” When asked about her work schedule, “I am always on. Physically I am available all day and the night is for sleeping. [I work] Like a machine,” Sobha adds.
Activism is important work. For some, it looks like winning awards for saving people incapable of saving themselves. For a few, it is a reality show. For many, it is survival—an organic response to oppression, a way, often the only one, to realise our constitutionally assured, fundamental rights. Such activists face a unique predicament—they regularly navigate overlapping realities of systemic violence in their personal lives while actively dismantling it at work.
This systemic violence is unending: it is everywhere. Vertically and horizontally, we live in a culture steeped in heteronormative Brahminical patriarchy, white supremacy, class bigotry, and ableism. It is no wonder then that quite often, within small human rights organizations, there is an urgency to fix things. There is always a crisis to attend to: the ability to always stay on and the sense of urgency that fuels us are qualities generally held close to our hearts, as a mark of commitment to our work.
Yet, these are also prized qualities to possess when one lives under capitalism and white supremacy, as they reinforce existing power hierarchies that control decision-making. That is, when our worth is directly tied to how much and how quickly we produce results, activism turns into a dehumanizing experience—which has clear repercussions on the mental health of activists.
Alternatives to such paradigms of productivity exist. Community building, mental health allowances, codes of conduct, friendly space policies—each of these decisions to resist capitalist pressures, to disengage from harmful systems of power and truly rest, is a transcendental moment, as Dom Chatterjee of Rest for Resistance writes. Sometimes, a revolutionary question for an individual to ask would be: “what would be a kindness to me right now?”. But, by placing the responsibility of care solely on the individual, we continue to perpetuate high rates of occupational burnout. “I think they [activists] need a break. Even I feel like I want to take a break,” says Sobha.
For those of us for whom our work and life intertwine, we urgently need culturally relevant feminist vocabularies and tools to address the mental health costs of our activism. Managing the cognitive, physical, behavioural, and motivational manifestations of long-term activism requires that we address the collective toll of our work first. Built on our own lived experiences of living in a country that continues to own our bodies through families, caste groups, and communities, our workplaces need anti-capitalist, collaborative, and contextual mental health policies and practices.
What Makes Activism So Taxing on Mental Health?
With about eight years of experience working in the non-profit sector, Rohini Lakshané a technologist, public policy researcher, and Wikimedian explains that “there are many structural reasons why activists do not take care of their physical and mental health and why they do not give themselves time—one of them is the underlying expectation and philosophy that activists are supposed to give their all, that they are supposed to be martyrs. This is an unwritten, unspoken expectation from themselves and others working with them. Anything less than that—time or space or opportunity for rest, recuperation, healing—is seen as slacking. It is never seen as a necessity or as an investment in the long-term well-being of the individual or the group that the individual activist is a part of. Second, organizations that deal with numerous pressing challenges of the communities and constituencies they serve, put their own well-being and health in the back seat, because of the nature of those challenges. Third, organizations are often in survival mode. [Even though] The physical and mental well-being of the activist is a long-term investment for the individual, for the group, and the movement as a whole, but it is not seen as such. Having said that, activists not taking care of their physical and mental health also happens in organizations that are stable and not in survival mode.”
Archa, a behavioural psychology and health researcher at The Alternative Story, an organization providing affordable, intersectional feminist, trauma-informed, anti-caste, anti-capitalist, and queer-affirmative mental health services, sees this culture play out with her clients. “The one thing we’ve noticed that small organizations need the most is awareness around mental health,” they explain. “People still believe in the ‘hustle’ life. I think this pandemic has been a wake-up call for a lot of organizations. The added mental pressure became extremely clear when there was so much going on around them [the employees], and then the work added more pressure.”
That this is Archa’s experience is unsurprising: after all, activist spaces are as prone to workplace harassment, bullying, or discrimination as any other. This work comes with psychosocial risks—such as compassion fatigue, occupational burnout, and vicarious trauma, to name a few. Activists, especially women and gender-diverse persons with intersecting marginalizations are regularly exposed to a spectrum of distressing, graphic, or violent content and instances of human rights abuses during the course of their work. Many also experience attacks such as public vilification on the Internet and online harassment.
This is compounded by the particularly grave absence of mental health care for activists in India and is further complicated by social stigma, a lack of public awareness on mental health, and the general inaccessibility of healthcare to many populations . And so, India’s activists are left fending for their mental health by themselves, without institutional support. Most small, women-led human rights organizations also do not have institutional processes, policies, and protocols to ensure the psychological safety and health of human rights activists at their workplaces. “Salaries in non-profit organisations are low, and on top of that, providing free emotional, intellectual and other kinds of labour is the norm rather than the exception. A lack of financial security and adequate compensation for time and labour leads to a larger psychological toll and anxieties about the present and future,” Rohini explains.
Can Activists be happy?
What would activism as a mentally healthy, even enjoyable human activity look like? What stable spaces could we create to visiblise the parts of ourselves that are suffering, specifically because of the work we do?
We are tired. A steady erosion of civil freedoms and democratic values has been underway in India for the past few years, which has now made it necessary to relearn, revise, and reconfigure existing templates of working, many of which guide the ‘way of life’ that under-resourced, not-for-profit and at-risk entities adopt. Our small organizations need anti-caste, feminist mental health frameworks with strategic and sustainable coping skills adaptable to our specific contexts. We need a trauma-informed work culture that rejects capitalist notions of productivity, one where the need for adequate breaks is normalized. Our psychosocial security, safety, and well-being will be supported by creating internal organizational structures of this nature.
“Mental health care services can be prohibitively expensive, which is one of the stumbling blocks preventing NGO workers from seeking mental health care, apart from the stigma, hesitancy, misconceptions about mental health. I believe that one way that organisations can ease the hurdles to seeking mental health support is to provide an allowance that pays for mental healthcare such as therapy,” Rohini says.
We also need straightforward tools to sustain us. Simple things like tech interventions to filter and limit the in-flow of information into the organization, introducing content warnings in institutional communications and meetings, and identifying accessible professional mental health services can prevent compounded experiences of vicarious trauma and occupational burnout.
A demonstration was held at Sardar Baug against recent pan India arrest of human right activists advocates, journalists and those who are invested in the cause of democracy, under UAPA. pic.twitter.com/Yn6URocOHi
— Nirjhari Sinha (@NirjhariSinha) September 5, 2018
Oppression is a public health issue. Sleep is a social justice issue. Working through oppression to find better ways to live is a mental health issue. The personal is the political. We know this. Even as systemic violence works according to its own design, we can define our collective mental health costs as more than just chemical imbalances and acknowledge the cultural, structural, and environmental issues at play. Colonial, capitalist paradigms would have us believe that people are worth nothing if they are not constantly producing. This is ironically counterproductive to the dreams of our liberation. We have a collective responsibility to create healthier alternatives to this malnourished way of relating to our work where the individual always comes second.
By prioritizing sleep, and making room for paid leave, health insurance, and childcare within our organizations, we can creatively subvert the subtle, culturally acceptable ways we have been participating in our oppression.
As we navigate overwhelming work conditions, there are ways to feel a sense of our shared resilience. “When we share [our work] with our friends, when there is someone to hear our stories, it relieves stress,” Sobha’s advice to fellow activists is to find community with each other. Additionally, by collaboratively establishing institutional policies and practices that combine culturally relevant healing methods with modern medicine, we can begin to create accountable communities that care for the self as well as the collective movement. This will allow for freedom and liberation to become embodied experiences, real things that we can feel in our bodies and minds. It will enable us to do better—in the interest of our individual, institutional, and collective feminist futures.
Featured image: Sobha Madhan (left), District Coordinator of the Nilgiris Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups’ Federation with Lakshmi (right) of Paniyar Young Women’s association on a field visit to Bhavani Sagar dam, Erode district, Tamilnadu; photograph courtesy of J.R. Mani.
 Every sixth person in India is in need of help with managing mental health conditions, while between 70% and 92% of persons in need of mental healthcare are unable to access quality services.