How can you protect your mental health and fight for racial justice?

How can you protect your mental health and fight for racial justice?

District residents have been protesting for police accountability and racial equity for six weeks, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

In the beginning of the movement, thousands of people across the country were mobilized and actively protesting. But, after weeks of nonstop organizing, many activists and advocates are burning out, becoming mentally and physically exhausted with the work. The protests can become traumatic when law enforcement officers use aggressive tactics in an attempt to control massive crowds.

How can people stay involved in the fight for racial equity while protecting their own mental health? And how can people stay focused on the goal without feeling a sense of despair?

Produced by Richard Cunningham



  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIThis weekend, the country entered its 6th consecutive week of protests, as activists continue fighting for police accountability and racial equity. Activism has made many people feel empowered and hopeful, but it can also take a toll on mental health. Many fear that people are beginning to burn out, becoming mentally and physically exhausted from the work, which can be exhausting, scary and traumatic.

  • 12:32:31

    KOJO NNAMDIEarlier this month, for example, law enforcement officers used teargas and rubber bullets to violently disperse protesters from Lafayette Park. Combine those stresses with the constant work of organizing and the psychological burden can sometimes be overwhelming. So, how can people protect their mental health during this time? How can activists stay focused on the mission without burning out? Joining us to discuss this is Dr. Amber Thornton, a clinical psychologist. Dr. Thornton, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:00

    AMBER THORNTONHi. Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to talk about this today.

  • 12:33:04

    NNAMDIAnd Jennifer Amuzie is an organizer for Sanctuary DMV. Jennifer Amuzie, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:11

    JENNIFER AMUZIEThanks for having me, and it's Amuzie.

  • 12:33:14

    NNAMDIIt's Amuzie. Thank you, Jennifer Amuzie.

  • 12:33:16

    AMUZIEYes. Thanks, Kojo.

  • 12:33:18

    NNAMDIAmber Thornton, what is activist burnout, and why is it a problem?

  • 12:33:22

    THORNTONYou know, similar to what you were saying, I think activist burnout is huge right now. And it's actually been a huge thing for a really long time, because this is not the first time that we are seeing people engage in heavy activism. So, you know, being an activist is really just someone who is very dedicated and devoted to the cause to social change. And activism can look a number of ways.

  • 12:33:45

    THORNTONBut activism burnout can come when we are devoting too much of our time, too much of our energy, and that then leads us to neglect some of the other things that are important, maybe our self-care, our emotional health, our physical health, the needs of our families, things like that. That can lead to burnout.

  • 12:34:02

    NNAMDIFrom what you're seeing, Dr. Thornton, are some groups of activists suffering more from burnout than others?

  • 12:34:11

    THORNTONYeah, most definitely. Typically, I tend to see black individuals, people of color, people in marginalized or oppressed groups tend to experience the burnout a little bit more than others. And this is because, I think, there is this compounding effect of injustice and oppression and just the stressors that come with injustice. And heavy activism can really just add to that. So, we tend to see that a little bit more so in those populations.

  • 12:34:45

    NNAMDIJennifer Amuzie, what is Sanctuary DMV, and what kind of work does the organization do?

  • 12:34:52

    AMUZIESanctuary DMV is an immigrant justice group. We focus on making the District, Maryland and Virginia area a safe place for our immigrant neighbors. And we've been focusing on multiple areas, including food justice advocacy around making sure that folks are not excluded from the D.C. budget, as well as standing in solidarity with our folks at BLMDC, BYP100 and the Black Swan Academy, who are also pushing for defunding MPD.

  • 12:35:49

    NNAMDIWhat makes activism so stressful for somebody who's doing the kind of work you're doing, Jennifer Amuzie?

  • 12:35:58

    AMUZIEI mean, I'll say that this is -- the thing that makes this very difficult is that you are face-to-face with the most dehumanizing parts of the government, right. What you see when you, for example, take a companera to an ICE check-in with their spouse, and then that person is immediately taken into ICE custody, is deeply traumatic. It's deeply dehumanizing. And, as a human being, seeing that is difficult. I'll say...

  • 12:36:42

    NNAMDI(overlapping) So, you're saying that when you -- you're saying that when you take someone to check in, which seems to be a routine procedure, and that person is with a spouse, that person is immediately incarcerated?

  • 12:36:55

    AMUZIEThat happened to me when I went to a check-in, a very routine check-in that should've been an in-and-out day procedure. The person was immediately taken into ICE custody. These are the kind of things that this administration sort of loves to do. Making the announcement that they made yesterday that students who took online classes wouldn't be able to stay in the United States less than a month before most schools open is the sort of thing that is deeply unfair, that breeds fear, and that is deeply traumatizing. We have to recognize that, like, people are going to be traumatized by this, that it is a difficult thing to experience, and it's a difficult thing to watch, as well.

  • 12:38:03

    NNAMDIHere now is Chad, in Georgetown. Chad, thanks for calling again. You're on the air.

  • 12:38:10

    CHADHey, Kojo. Hey, two speakers. Hey, yeah, I hope I have some insights here. It's probably a little more pragmatic opportunity to offer some treatments for using, as a physician here at Walter Reed and a professor at USU. We've been teaching, you know, some methodology that I didn't learn in my Western medical school practice, both at the NICOE Center, which is the Navy Intrepid Center of Excellence up here at Bethesda.

  • 12:38:36

    CHADAnd troops are exposed to traumatic events is both breathing exercises, known as one function of that being Wim Hof breathing. I'm not sure if your guests have heard of that before. And the other has been acupuncture and music therapy. And, again, I know these sound a little bit nontraditional, but what we've found is the typical support for trauma, stress and depression seem not to be working in the usual paradigm. So, those three methodologies are showing, you know, great success with, obviously, my patient population.

  • 12:39:16

    NNAMDIThanks for sharing that. Amber Thornton, some people offer meditation as an option to combat burnout. Is that something you'd recommend?

  • 12:39:24

    THORNTONAbsolutely. Absolutely, because it just helps us to center and ground ourselves. There's something magical that happens when we just take a moment to breath. It doesn't take all of the stress away, but it really can help ground us back to the present moment. And doing so consistently can really help.

  • 12:39:42

    NNAMDIHow has the pandemic affected burnout? What part does it play? First you, Amber Thornton.

  • 12:39:48

    THORNTONI think it's played a huge part, because I think a number of us have just, one, become burnt out by the pandemic. And so, you know, the stresses that have come with maybe job loss or financial loss or losing childcare, you know, just are stresses in routines being totally unlifted because of the pandemic, or even just losing people and loved ones. That causes a great deal of stress, and then adding that to activist burnout can be tremendous.

  • 12:40:19

    NNAMDIHere's Peter in Randallstown, Maryland. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:40:24

    PETERI heard some things while I was listening, and you want to know about burnout and stress. So, I got a question, is why do we tune out and why do we do that? I thought we were supposed to be social people.

  • 12:40:44

    NNAMDIThat's a good question, Dr. Amber Thornton, because I've heard people saying, because of the pandemic that's going on right now, because so much of the news that we get from the pandemic is not exactly good news, a lot of people say, I tune out to the news, for instance, for a while. Some people also tune out to ongoing activism that's taking place. What is it about tuning out that can be both A., good, and B., bad?

  • 12:41:15

    THORNTONYeah, you know, the reasons why we tune out with things like that is because it's our body and our mind's way to kind of self preserve the energy that we have. You know, I think as humans, sometimes, our mind makes decisions for us about what we can take in and what we cannot. And for someone who maybe isn't ready to take in information about the pandemic or social injustice, they can easily just tune out. And that's their system's way of preserving the energy that they have.

  • 12:41:43

    THORNTONSo, in that way it can be really protective. But then, on the other hand, it really can get in the way of us learning about what's happening in our society and learning about what's happening to people in our community or other communities. So, we really do have to be careful about, you know, not completely shutting down, but then also knowing how to let in small bits of information that we feel ready to tolerate and to manage.

  • 12:42:11

    NNAMDIJennifer Amuzie, what advice would you offer for people becoming exhausted with activism work and people who just want to tune out for a while?

  • 12:42:21

    AMUZIEI think it's really important to build joy into your work, build relationships with folks that you are organizing with. I would say that some of my closest friends are part of this core group of organizers. And these are people who I find joy in being with, right. And so I think there's definitely a difference also, you know, I'll just name it, between burnout and discomfort, right. There are a lot of folks who are very new to this, who came into it in the last six weeks. And what they're feeling is uncomfortable. And, like, sometimes you just need to sit with that discomfort.

  • 12:43:12

    NNAMDIDr. Thornton, how has the pandemic affected burnout? What part does it play?

  • 12:43:19

    THORNTONI think it exacerbates burnout. I think it makes it more likely for burnout to happen, because with the pandemic, many of us just don't have the same supports and resources that we're used to. So it makes it more likely that we will reach a point where we are burned out, or we're feeling extreme stress because we already are at a level where it's not our typical norm.

  • 12:43:43

    NNAMDISame question to you, Jennifer Amuzie. How has the pandemic affected burnout? What part does it play?

  • 12:43:51

    AMUZIEI think everything is sort of extra under this pandemic, right. As someone who is very much an extrovert, having to stay home, having to take in information and keep up relationships from sort of this removed stated is a little bit more difficult. It definitely adds to the sense of isolation.

  • 12:44:24

    NNAMDIAmber Thornton, what does burnout look like? Are there physical symptoms we should look out for? And, by the way, if you're having symptoms of burnout, now might be a good time for you to call. So, back to you, Dr. Thornton, what does burnout look and feel like?

  • 12:44:37

    THORNTONSo, burnout can look like -- well, first I'll just say, burnout looks different for everybody. And from a mental health professional standpoint, symptoms of burnout often may make symptoms of your very common mood disorder. So, symptoms of anxiety, symptoms of depression, they tend to look a lot like symptoms of burnout.

  • 12:44:58

    THORNTONAnd so what that might look like is feeling physically exhausted and fatigued. Even if you do get a full night of rest, you're still waking up and every day feeling like you just aren't rested enough. It can feel like apathy, maybe feeling like you just don't care as much as you used to, or you're not able to engage as much. It can look like racing thoughts, maybe having trouble calming your thoughts or slowing your thoughts. It can look like feeling as if you feel unsafe or you're experiencing more fear. It can look like low motivation.

  • 12:45:29

    THORNTONThere's so many things, so many ways that burnout can exhibit. But really, the key thing is, are you feeling like your day-to-day behaviors and actions are not usual for you? Are they out of the norm for you? And if you feel like, you know, you're not your typical self, it could be that you are experiencing burnout.

  • 12:45:47

    NNAMDIAmber Thornton, how can we, the rest of us become more aware of people's mental health during this time? In addition to it, what changes should we make it take care of our own health?

  • 12:45:59

    THORNTONYou know, honestly, I think for your first question, how can we become more aware of other people's mental health, is really we have to become more aware of our own mental health. Because I think when we are able to be in tune with the things that impact us and affect our mental health, we are able to have more empathy and compassion for those around us.

  • 12:46:18

    THORNTONAnd so I would recommend, you know, really pay more attention, be more mindful -- and you can do this through meditation -- about the things that are affecting you and your mental wellbeing and your mental health. And then when you're able to do that, you can better connect with other people and then check in with them about their own mental health.

  • 12:46:36

    THORNTONI forgot your second question, if you can ask me one more time.

  • 12:46:38

    NNAMDIWhat changes should we make to take care of our health?

  • 12:46:43

    THORNTONI think that, you know, one thing I always teach people is to really take a pause and take inventory on the things that are impacting you in your day to day. So, you might not be in a place where you can change a lot of things. You know, it might be that your activism is part of your job or, you know, there are things stressing you at home.

  • 12:47:00

    THORNTONWe might not be able to change it right away, but if you become more aware, take more inventory of the things impacting you and how they're impacting you, that is a really good place to start. So, just become more mindful of the things that might contribute to your stress. But then also the things that, on the flipside, might bring you joy or might bring you some satisfaction, so you have a good awareness of these things.

  • 12:47:23

    NNAMDIJennifer Amuzie, you referred earlier to making sure that there's joy in your life. How are you trying to balance working for your cause and protecting your mental health?

  • 12:47:34

    AMUZIESure. I got for walks. And, like, the first caller talked about, I am also trying to incorporate yoga into my life. I also have the rhythm just of, like, a weekly writers group and church that meets on Zoom, which is a great creative and spiritual outlet for me. And then I have a rollicking group chat with my siblings, shout out to them. And we definitely have a support system sort of built into that group chat, as well.

  • 12:48:19

    NNAMDIJennifer, we reached out to our followers on social media, and many of them said that their feelings of burnout came in cycles. Is that something you see or experience, too? Are these feelings of exhaustion cyclical?

  • 12:48:33

    AMUZIEAbsolutely. And I'll say, with our group, with Sanctuary DMV, there are multiple people who have taken the time out, taken a break and have sort of rested themselves before coming back into this work. Myself included. I mean, as a black woman working in immigrant justice work, when Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery all died right after one another, I definitely had to step back and definitely take that time, you know, we're all doing our best, and get strong and come back stronger.

  • 12:49:25

    NNAMDIAmber Thornton, we got an email from someone who says: I was active in the Black Lives Matter community at around 2017, when I was around 19. I had already had a history of undiagnosed bipolar disorder. One of the reasons I have not protested recently is because of the burnout I experienced from the countless deaths I protested. What advice would you give to that individual?

  • 12:49:49

    THORNTONYou know, I would say to that individual continue to prioritize your mental health, because I think that is really what's most important. We cannot show up for justice or activism if we first are not full, if our cup is not full. But then also for that caller, I would say that there are a number of ways to do activism. Protesting is only one of them.

  • 12:50:15

    THORNTONAnother really healthy form of activism that I'm a fan of is something called authentic activism. And really, what that means is just showing up into the world as your true unique self. And that, in and of itself, is resistance, because for a lot of people who are a part of marginalized groups, we feel pressure to change ourselves or be different to fit the majority and often take activism as you standing up and saying, no, no more. I'm going to show up as myself. So, really looking into other forms of activism that might be more beneficial for mental health.

  • 12:50:49

    NNAMDIHere's Frank in Fort Washington, Maryland. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:50:54

    FRANKThank you. I just wanted to encourage these folks to keep it up. In the 1970s we were doing protests 24/7. One afternoon on one weekend, there were 200 people at my house, protesting. We had nine phone lines. And 50 years later, I am now 76, you'll look back on this time. And if you keep it up and keep trying and look at the successes that you've made, you'll feel really, really good about it. So, don't give up. Thank you.

  • 12:51:30

    NNAMDIFrank, thank you very much for your call. The difference between the time of Frank's activism and today is, in large measure, social media. Social media has become an avenue to spread messages of activism, but it may also have adverse effects on your mental health. Starting with you, Dr. Thornton, how does it help and hurt our wellbeing?

  • 12:51:53

    THORNTONYou know, I think you hit the nail on the head. You know, activism now is a little bit different because of social media. It helps because social media helps to spread messages and spread awareness. And it connects people all across the country and all across the world all for the cause of activism and justice. So, that is a really good thing.

  • 12:52:16

    THORNTONBut the reasons why it can hurt is that there's no off switch -- or there is an off switch with social media, but it's really hard for us to switch it off. And so what happens is we can become inundated by a lot of negative messages. Or if activism is our work, it's hard to shut the work off, because it's constant. Social media doesn't go to sleep, and so you really can quickly become very overwhelmed and overburdened by all of the messages that social media can give.

  • 12:52:46

    NNAMDIJennifer Amuzie, same question to you.

  • 12:52:50

    AMUZIEI feel like I need to start with I love social media. I live on Facebook, (laugh) and especially in this time of social distancing, I think it's very important to have that connection to folks. But it's also really important, in order to just, like, keep yourself in balance and keep your wellness, to, you know, give yourself hours. My phone automatically switches to do not disturb after 10:00, and it doesn't come back on until 7:00, which means that I miss out on a lot of great stuff, but it also means that I sleep really well at night. This is something that I just started recently.

  • 12:53:36

    AMUZIEAnd so I think it's -- social media -- I just want to, you know, say again that it's such an important part of the work that we're doing. And it definitely doesn't take the place of, you know, that real, in-real-life relationship-building work.

  • 12:54:02

    NNAMDIHere is Stan in Bowie, Maryland. Stan, we only have about a minute left, but go ahead, please.

  • 12:54:06

    STANOkay. Yeah, Kojo, thank you, and I love the show. Been listening to it for years.

  • 12:54:11


  • 12:54:11

    STANThree things, T T and T. We must begin to regulate and control our thoughts and our -- which means we have stand guard at the gateway of our mind. We can't listen to hours and hours and hours (unintelligible) and that we got, you know, all kind of information and news. People getting shot and murdered on the streets in the southeast of D.C.

  • 12:54:36

    NNAMDIOkay. What are the other two Ts?

  • 12:54:39

    STANT and T, time, regulate and control your time. In other words, we got large clusters of time. Be creative. Do the things you've been wanting to do forever, writing a book, going for a walk.

  • 12:54:50

    NNAMDIThat's about it. All the time we have. Thank you for your call, Stan. Dr. Amber Thornton, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:54:57

    THORNTONThank you.

  • 12:54:58

    NNAMDIJennifer Amuzie, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:55:01

    AMUZIEThanks for having me.

  • 12:55:02

    NNAMDIThis segment on helping activists cope with burnout was produced by Richard Cunningham, and our conversation about people experiencing homelessness as the region moves to open up was produced by Kayla Hewitt.

  • 12:55:12

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, amid recent protests to defund the police, the D.C. government is pushing forward with police reform measures, but this is not the first time the council has grappled with the issue. D.C. Auditor and former Councilmember Kathy Patterson on why prior police reform didn't stick. Plus, what did new safety protocols mean for those employed in the poultry industry? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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