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The Work That Kills Us

For many activists, being a part of Black Lives Matter is essential to securing the rights—and lives—of black citizens. But what do you do when the work you’re doing to save lives starts to claim yours?

By Marissa Jenae Johnson


(Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

To be an activist or organizer of any type is tiresome work. But in the movement for black lives in the context of the hyper-militarized police and ongoing consumption of black death, black liberation organizers are struggling, among other things, with maintaining the will to fight.

Often overlooked in conversations around the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and the faces behind it, is what happens when the protest is over. Though we love to highlight organizers in their most visible and most militant moments, rarely do we examine how these organizers manage to survive in a world where they are constantly at war and often under surveillance. As conversation around the sustainability of a movement born in large part out of black uprisings continues, we must take seriously the issues of trauma for black organizers and the barriers to accessing mental-health services for people throughout the black community.

Undoubtedly, the movement for black lives has changed the lives of many. But, for activists, while there is something intrinsically fulfilling about fighting for a better world, issues of increased post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and trauma have come with the work.

“On one end, my involvement with this movement has saved my life. Prior to this movement, I was suffering from severe depression mostly due to suffering from poverty. After my involvement, I found myself suddenly motivated to live,” says St. Louis-based organizer Angel Carter. “However, [on] the other end of the spectrum … I constantly re-live the violence I endured at the hands of police [during Ferguson]. I consistently re-live those nights of never knowing if I would survive.”

Ongoing police brutality, increased violence in direct actions, and the wide-availability of videos of black killings are major factors affecting the mental health of black activists, but they aren’t the only reason for the crisis of mental health among organizers. Several organizers spoke about the problem of martyrdom in BLM spaces and the inability to maintain good habits of self-care under such overwhelming circumstances.

“The fact of the matter is that we’re being asked to stare death and harm in the face every day, to immerse ourselves in it,” says graduate student and black organizer William Richardson. “That takes a toll on folks beyond any direct abuse that may happen while working in activist spaces. Most activists neglect their mental health because they take on the idea that they need to be a martyr for the struggle and any cost is worth it, including themselves.”

“I see a lot of my friends and family in this movement running themselves to the ground in the name of liberation, particularly black femmes, queer, and trans folks,” says Adja Gildersleve, one of the founders of the Minneapolis BLM chapter. “We literally slave to kill white supremacy, then we look at each other with resentment when we think the work isn’t happening because too many people are stepping back. We are tired. We are depressed. We are wounded. And the very consciousness that empowered us — consumes us even faster than we can heal.”

This trauma doesn’t just lead to depression; it can have lethal effects on young organizers. Carter spoke of suicide within the movement as being grounded in the tradition of impossible choices for black people historically. “White supremacy often feels vast and hopeless. I believe suicide is what happens to some of us when our minds are in a place of, ‘We need freedom, but we can never be free here.”

“We’re being asked to stare death and harm in the face every day, to immerse ourselves even in it.”

Carter also spoke about MarShawn McCarrel, an Ohio-based activist who died by suicide on the steps of the State House last February. “Before doing so, he pissed on the statehouse steps, which to me sent a strong message about his reasoning. I’m reminded of the ancestors before us that saw this as a solution; jumping ships, intentionally starving themselves, and sometimes even murdering their own children because they would be ‘better off than to live in this system’. I’m not shaming this method of liberation, however, I think it speaks volumes that the black experience has been such a burden that dying is seen as a escape from racism.”

For Gildersleve, the uptick in suicides and failing mental health among her peers has been deeply personal. “I’ve lost three friends in the movement to suicide within a year; that was my wake up call. I want more of us to operate less like martyrs and more like elders-to-be,” she says. “After what this country has done to us and at the rate they are killing us, becoming a black elder is revolutionary. Self-care is revolutionary.”

And indeed no meaningful revolution can happen without first addressing the crisis of mental health and healing among black people and black liberation fighters.

“I have not seen many activists plan ahead in anticipation of mental-health struggles, but I have certainly seen depression manifest itself in tangible ways,” says Kevin Winstead, an American Studies Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland. “The mood and tone of some activists is becoming a little more pessimistic, there is potential for higher turnover in membership as people make choices to protect their sanity, and there is potential for isolation to occur between movement organizers and the communities they serve. I believe mental health has become the single greatest threat to black liberation movements.”

And though these issues affect activists in unique ways, the organizers I spoke with were quick to specify that the traumas that accompany experiencing and fighting against white supremacy don’t just affect activists, but affect the entirety of the black community.

“This is not just a problem among black people working toward liberation; this is a problem among all black people trying to survive in an era of black death,” says prison divestment organizer Anthony Williams.

But there are many barriers to accessing important mental-health services for black people at all levels of the movement. While conversations around mental health have become less taboo in black organizing spaces and in the black community as a whole, access to culturally qualified providers and financial constraints are primary concerns.

Christine Andrada, a community member and organizer in Oregon, said that the lack of black therapists affects activists’ access to mental-health resources. “Many of us felt distrustful of the mental-health resources available because every therapist/counselor is white, and probably don’t fully understand black mental health stigmas or how deeply the trauma and violence we are inundated with daily affects souls of black people,” she says.

Money is also a significant barrier. Many activists can barely afford to cover their basic needs while dedicating so much time to social justice work, much less be able to pay for the therapy and counseling they desperately need.

“My dad was an old school Nation of Islam dude,” says J Mase III, a black trans man who considers himself a supporter of the movement. “When I think about the types of training they did with their bodies, what they ate … they were always prepping for a larger movement.” But even this is challenging, Winstead says: “Los Angeles and Chicago Black Panthers both had severe mental-health challenges that went overlooked by scholars. Particularly in the form of PTSD for those who have been arrested.”

We may not get more critical study done around mental health and black social movements for some time. But, in the meantime, black communities are finding other sources of survival and restoration. Many activist spaces and black neighborhoods rely on the care of various healers, and, for many, the church has been an important place of refuge.

For Danielle Eubanks-Brady, a clinical social work student and former student organizer based in Indianapolis, the ministry center on her college campus became a place of support amid the depression that came along with organizing shortly after the death of Michael Brown. “I’m not a religious person at all,” Eubanks-Brady says, “but the ministry center was my safe haven and I felt like somebody was listening to me. If I didn’t have those people in the ministry center, I don’t know where I would have been.” But even with this support Eubanks-Brady made it clear that the type of mental-health services many need is more than what ministry leaders are prepared for.

While mental-health care for black activists and the black community still has a ways to go, every person interviewed for this piece has said that large contributions could be made in this area by ordinary people doing very attainable things. Giving meals to people, being sure to pay for activists’ labor, donating toward organizers’ therapy bills, and even just creating spaces for organizers to be safe and be cared for all go a long way.

It is clear that the pain being inflicted on black people is more than just physical. Withstanding white supremacy is damaging mentally, and, for those on the front lines bearing witness to these horrors, it can have lethal consequences. There are no overnight solutions to this unseen and often unspoken violence, but supporting activists’ basic physical, mental, and emotional needs might be one of the most tangible ways ordinary people can support the movement. There is no substitution for the professional care that black organizers need, but a meal, a hug, or a safe place might just be essential to the success of the movement for black lives.