mental health

If Your Campus Activism Is Giving You Panic Attacks, Take a Break

Photo: Richard McCaffrey/Getty Images

Your own well-being comes first. That was the consistent message I got during the only two periods of my life, both brief, when I held positions that could potentially involve a bit of physical or psychological peril.

One was when I was training to be an emergency medical technician in Massachusetts. During the certification process, they told us over and over again that if you were called to a scene and sensed any potential danger there, you were to wait for cops or other authorities equipped to handle it to show up. It didn’t matter if someone was dying of a heart attack; it didn’t matter if someone was bleeding out 20 feet from the ambulance you were sitting in. Your own safety, your own protection from live wires or dangerous people or exploding gas tanks, came first. (I should point out that in my actual short span of time as an EMT, I faced none of those things — my company mostly did transfers between hospitals and nursing homes and residences, not actual emergency work.)

The same logic held when I was trained to work at Samaritans, a suicide hotline. Despite the fact that the phones were often ringing off the hook, we were explicitly instructed to make sure we were okay between calls, to take a 15-minute break if needed. And if a caller started being abusive and making us upset — I didn’t have to deal with any such cretins, but ask any woman who has worked on a suicide hotline about the “masturbators” — we were told to hang up right away. Within reason, it didn’t matter if our temporarily unavailability meant fewer struggling people would get through and talk to a human. Our own well-being came first — “self-care” was a consistent area of focus.

I kept thinking of this idea as I read a very sad piece in The Brown Daily Herald headlined “Schoolwork, advocacy place strain on student activists.” The author, Mei Novak, offers multiple stories of students so burned out by their social-justice advocacy — advocacy in part spurred by “two racist columns published by The Herald and the alleged assault of a Latinx student from Dartmouth by a Department of Public Safety officer” — that they are falling apart.

Here’s the most striking account. I don’t want to spread this student’s name across the internet unnecessarily — they probably didn’t anticipate any national publications covering this when they talked to a Daily Herald reporter — so I’ll change the text, without brackets, to call the student “Jones” (their full name is in the article, but there’s nothing I can do about that):

Jones ’16, who uses the pronouns xe, xem and xyr, said student activism efforts on campus are necessary. “I don’t feel okay with seeing students go through hardships without helping and organizing to make things better.” In the wake of The Herald’s opinion pieces, Jones felt overwhelmed by emotions flooding across campus. Students were called out of class into organizing meetings, and xe felt pressure to help xyr peers cope with what was going on, xe said. Jones “had a panic attack and couldn’t go to class for several days.”

This article is getting passed around a bit, and people are inevitably going to use it to make a rather played-out set of points about millennials and “coddled” college students and trigger warnings and so on. I see something different here: Either these students are being absolutely failed by the adults or upperclassmen mentoring them, or there’s no mentorship going on at all.

If you’re at a point where a heated campus debate over racism is causing you to have panic attacks, you need to take care of yourself and get some help. If you are so burned out from activism that it’s wrecking your mental health, you need to take care of yourself and get some help. Regardless of where these students are getting the message that it’s a desirable outcome for them to work and advocate so hard, they melt into a puddle — and there are likely some brutal social dynamics at play on an Ivy League campus populated by type-A students at a time when the conversation over racial justice feels quite urgent — it’s a really harmful message.

Unfortunately, there are some formidable reasons a “Your own well-being comes first” message is less likely to take hold on a campus than it is in the adult professional world. For one thing, when you’re a student, it really does feel like fighting against racist columns in your student newspaper is the most important thing in the world, that it might be more important than your own health. Plus, if all your friends are involved in it, it has to be very hard to say no to a given event or sit-in.

Perhaps more important, it’s hard to suggest to students they take care of their mental health at the expense of their activism without the suggestion coming across as “victim-blaming,” like they brought their psychological woes on themselves. But this is one of the times when this concept, so vital to the conversation about sexual assault, doesn’t quite apply. Part of growing up is attaining a sense of balance. Adults do have a responsibility to take care of themselves and make sure they have the tools to be helpful, productive members of society.

In the long run, if you’re dealing with untreated mental-health concerns, you’re unlikely to be a very effective activist — or a very effective anything. That’s one of the reasons why your own well-being has to come first. It’s sad that some students at Brown — and, in all likelihood, elsewhere as well — aren’t getting the message.

If Your Activism’s Causing Panic Attacks, Do Less