Life, Pursuit of Justice

The Psychological Cost of Advocacy: Mental Health in the Field

Human rights activists are tough. They’re full of grit, passion and heartfelt depth. They’re committed, full of overwhelming love, and powerful movement builders.

They’re insurmountable forces to be reckoned with. 

But they’re also over-stimulated, over-worked and, often, under-paid (assuming that they are getting paid for their work). They’re required to stand firm against opposition and demand accountability.  When they return home they’re misunderstood, questioned when they’re too jumpy, too detached or too culture shocked to respond “normally.”

Within every project that an activist takes on, a degree of secondary trauma occurs. Some more seasoned activists are better able to prepare themselves for the psychological battle; new activists, however, are often caught off-guard by the emotional and psychological toll that this work has on them. Coupled with “compassion fatigue,” many activists find themselves struggling to heal themselves while simultaneously serving others.

Some of this struggle stems from the fact that there simply aren’t ways to prepare oneself for the emotional reaction of witnessing human rights violations firsthand. The difference between theoretical human rights analysis and on-the-ground field work is greater than night and day: they’re on completely different universes.

Some of the struggle also stems from the fact that secondary trauma simply isn’t spoken about in the human rights world; Google “compassion fatigue” and you’ll find few substantive hits. Add in “New York Times” to the search list, and you’ll only find articles from the mid-80s to early-90s. Put simply, there isn’t any research — substantial, public and well-read research — on trauma and human rights activists.

Together, we must vow to honor our emotional connection to this work, and honor our truths by ensuring our well-being.

To start at the beginning, let’s talk about types of emotional impact.

Most activists experience one of the following five symptoms:

  1. Active manifestations, including mood changes related to depression or anxiety
  2. Cognitive manifestations, impacting attention, memory and concentration
  3. Physical manifestations, causing health problems such as headaches, high blood pressure and chronic illness
  4. Behavioural manifestations, impacting productivity, including potential substance abuse, and behavioural changes
  5. Motivational manifestations, characterized by decreased drive and increased feelings of isolation and despondency

These symptoms manifest as a result of secondary trauma. There are also other types of emotional and psychological toils that come from SJ and HR work. For the most part, here’s the definitions you should be familiar with as we start building knowledge on this issue:

Vicarious Trauma: Typically referred to the changed internal structure of an individual working with a community that results from empathetic engagement with a traumatized individual or community, or by witnessing violations. Vicarious trauma impacts cognitive functioning concerning an individual’s ability to trust and feel safe, and may impact self-confidence.

Burnout: Emotional exhaustion and an emotional distancing from one’s own feelings. Burnout is a long-term effect of activism that is a result of growing mentally exhausted and losing the idealism that drove the work for social change. Burnout can be self-inflicted through continuous pressure to make the greatest amount of change to “unwieldy” injustices.

These are the two “main” effects of SJ work. Vicarious trauma typically comes first, with burnout occurring after significant time in the field,

My own experience with secondary trauma tracked parallel to the above five listed symptoms, and I experienced a flavoring of each. It took me months to realize what was going on. The confusion stemmed from the fact that I purposefully reflected on my time in the field, I took time to myself, and I was acutely aware of the experiences that I was placing myself in. To me, these were all the necessary steps that I had to take in order to make sure that I was “taking care of myself.” To have “symptoms” that continued long past my placement date simply didn’t make sense to me. I was, after all, pretty seasoned in this field.

I studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in college, and maintained a focus on the region for the next six years. I took Arabic, I took the political science classes, I kept up to date by reading Haaretz and Electronic Intifada. I continued research over the years and wrote numerous papers on different aspects of the conflict.

I was involved in activism and political debates, but I never actually expected to have the opportunity to work in the oPt. My experience with the conflict was purely academic, black ink on white paper. During my semester in Cyprus, an opportunity arose for me to travel to Jerusalem with some friends, but money was tight and if I was finally going to make it to Palestine, I wanted to be able to go and not just “stop by” for the heck of it. So, I waited.

Two years later, and in my second year of law school, I found a posting online for a human rights internship in the West Bank. Not entirely expecting to receive the placement, but remaining optimistic, I applied and waited. And waited. And waited. (For those of you in the non-profit world, you know that this waiting period is inevitable and that most good things mean a long wait is involved. Well, this was certainly no different.)

After about a month and a half, I received an email requesting an interview for the position. We Skyped. I was accepted.

I wish beyond wish that I could put my feelings into words. I was ecstatic. I had been working towards and international internship for years, but always bumped into residency and work authorization requirements. Finally, after years of foundation building, here I was, about to embark on an internship that would take me to a place that I studied for so long that it didn’t even feel like a real place anymore. I couldn’t wait to leave.

I began work with my host organization immediately after our Skype interview and  my acceptance, developing a UN complaint on the recent surge of violence in the West Bank.

Almost immediately, I knew I was going to have problems.

Over the years, I studied the conflict from a purely academic lens, so immersed in the facts that I forgot that these were actual people. This was a real place and these things were really happening. I forgot that the words on the page were more than just ink on parchment; they were stories of true suffering and loss. While I wouldn’t say that I was detached from the pain that was occurring, I was in a sterile environment that was focused on just learning, and not truly understanding the human cost of conflict.

But, once I began dealing with real names in real time, I lost it.

I distinctly remember calling my mom one night, as I was working on compiling a list of the youth that had been killed in the West Bank just in the past year. My God, it was so long. My God, these kids were so young. There were children just barely out of first grade. There were young women my age. There were teenage boys. In the middle of an emotional wave, I called my mom. With names and ages swirling around my head, I only remember telling her that I didn’t think I’d be able to complete my assignment during the summer. I don’t know if I even explained to her why.

I hadn’t even left the country yet, and already I was feeling the weight of the occupation and the pressure of the conflict. My heart hurt like it had never hurt before. As always though, mom responded by reminding me why I was doing this work. The pain you’re feeling, she said, is a sign that you’re doing something meaningful. Seeking to honor the Palestinian resistance, I let myself feel. I acknowledged the pain, I accepted it, and I let it roll off like a wave. I remember thinking: Okay, Morgan. Feel the feelings, honor them, grow from them, and then move on. It was the same self-reflection that I did anytime emotions ran high.

I picked myself up and continued forward. This was everything I worked for, after all.

I landed in Palestine two months later, still emotionally wary but also feeling extremely fortunate and eager. I arrived to Hebron and spent the next three months learning, traveling and exploring, taking everything in and relishing every waking moment I had. This isn’t to say that it was easy; there were times that I questioned my decision and wavered in my resolve, but groundbreaking experiences don’t come from within your comfort zone. And so, I pushed on.

During my time in Hebron, waves of violence continued. Nestled within the impending “Third Intifada,” the West Bank witnessed the bloodiest summer in years. A pregnant woman was shot and killed at the Ibrahimi Check Point near our hostel; an IDF soldier shot and killed an unarmed, supine teenager; 4 Israelis were killed in Tel Aviv by an active shooter; and land grabs increased; there were at least four car-based attacks; and Hebron was blockaded in response to an attack on an Israeli-settler. We heard gun shots frequently, and some of us saw the missiles flying in the air before landing in Gaza. Most of us saw the damaged buildings in Jerusalem and elsewhere from the numerous wars in the region. All of us trekked across contested land. We all saw the glaring difference in social services, municipality organization and infrastructure as we went between Israel and oPt. We experienced the water shortage ourselves, and felt the oppressive hand of the IDF as we went through checkpoints. We walked through the same checkpoints that were the sites of numerous Palestinian deaths. 

Hebron, Palestine

We understood the depth and significance of the time, space and land that we temporarily claimed as our home. While there, though, the weight of occupation wasn’t immediately apparent because we began to carry the burden slowly. As we continuously learned more, the weight surely increased,  but in the moment it didn’t feel like much. The true impact of the summer didn’t emerge until after I returned home.

When I finally landed in the States I felt relieved of something, but the anxiety built up from the summer remained. Something was different. I couldn’t sleep. I felt weirdly detached from the world. I was distracted. I missed deadlines. I felt….depressed?

Those were some of the scariest months of my life. I struggled to complete simple tasks. I had anxiety over unidentifiable tasks and concerns. The derealization that occurred, which is one of the worst and most traumatic symptoms of secondary trauma, was debilitating. Over the course of three months I had completely lost myself without even realizing it. I could tell people were concerned. I could tell people noticed.

I continued like this for weeks until one of my professors sat me down and finally gave me a name for what I was experiencing. The disillusionment, the derealization, the depression and insomnia were all symptoms of secondary trauma. I didn’t even truly understand what that meant, and I surely didn’t go into my placement expecting or suspecting that I would have to deal with it when I got back. No one told me. No one gave me training. No one checked in after the placement to see if I was manifesting symptoms. Had my professor not identified it and guided me, I would probably still be dealing with the aftermath. 

Groundbreaking experiences don’t come from within your comfort zone

I was shocked. Yes, my time in Palestine was hard, but it was also a dream come true. I traveled. I ate all the hummus. I drank all the tea. How could this have happened?

After that moment, I researched. I started self-care. I began learning about secondary trauma and SJ/HR activism, social structures and organizational frameworks. I read and read and read in the hopes that I would learn something that could not only help me, but help others in the same position as me. I wanted to make sure that others knew about this possibility of trauma, and that they knew how to deal with it.

As activists, we must demand a removal of social justice and human rights work from the self-perpetuated culture of selflessness and guilt.

A study on mental health in the human rights field found that ~20% of individuals had symptoms associated with PTSD, ~15% dealt with depression, and ~10% reported burnout. When questioned about primary and secondary trauma and the manner of exposure: ~90% reported trauma through interviewing survivors and witnesses, ~65% from visiting sites of violations, 34% from witnessing violence, and ~80% from deprivations of basic needs.

These numbers prove two things:

First, human rights advocates and activists are  resilient. Yes, these numbers are concerning, but all but two of those numbers are well below what I would have expected. For the most part, we are skilled at navigating the rough waters of SJ and HR work. And even still, the individuals that are represented by the numbers above most likely returned to the same field of work that they sustained this trauma from. It’s because SJ/HR activists are tough and are whole-heartedly committed to the work that they embark on. Let’s be real: most of us, no matter how long we are in the field, just aren’t prepared for the impact our work will have on us. This isn’t for lack of preparation. We do prepare. We do our homework and understand the region, city and neighborhood that we complete our assignments in; we understand the intersection of vulnerabilities and our communities; we know how our issue fits into the larger wheel of oppression. We come ready to fight, both with knowledge, with activism, and with the soft skills necessary to complete emotional work.

Second, it is abundantly clear that we, as a society and through our organizations and institutions, are woefully underserving our front line human rights defenders. The emotional and psychological trauma resulting from this field is real and it’s mean. Organizations are concerned about their structural sustainability but fail to recognize the importance of their advocates’ sustainability. The implications of secondary trauma and burnout include the decreased effectiveness and impact of our advocacy. Creativity dwindles, patience is non-existent, and focus is hard to come by. Our organizations hurt, movements hurt, we hurt. 

As activists, we must demand a removal of social justice and human rights work from the self-perpetuated culture of selflessness and guilt. We shouldn’t have to feel torn between taking care of ourselves and being perceived as non-committal to our issues. The SJ and HR fields are losing bright, talented individuals to disillusionment and fatigue from a lack of reflection, awareness and action against the emotional and psychological trauma that results in this field.

Together, we must work together to create support networks both within and without our host organizations, demanding an understanding of the deep sensitivities of this work and the impact that the lack of sustainable conditions will have on long-term success and change. We must no longer be plagued by lack of self- and collective reflection. Together, we must vow to honor our emotional connection to this work, and honor our truths by ensuring our well-being.

When I found that there aren’t any real programs or social support systems to prepare people for secondary trauma, I was shocked. I hope that my story helps in some small way. If you have any personal experience with secondary trauma you’d be interested in sharing, please comment below. If you are interested in collaborating on SJ work, organizational frameworks for creating support systems within organizations, how to network and build a coalition for SJ support, or anything else, click the “CONTACT ME” button and let’s chat. 


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