When I first realized it was Suicide Prevention Day, I was excited about having an excuse to create this post. I feel very strongly about mental health, particularly as it goes unaddressed in school systems and affects younger people. But, more recently, as I reflect on my own personal experiences, I’ve become very concerned with mental health (and suicide prevention) as it affects community leaders too.
Around this time last year, an NYC-based LGBT activist and youth leader, Joseph Jefferson committed suicide. I remember the feeling of shock many people expressed at this news. The media and accompanying community response had been so focused on addressing the surge of youth suicides that had been occuring; almost overnight, it seemed people had forgotten that young people aren’t the only ones who struggle with coming out, depression, and the challenges of reconciling one’s identity with the world around them. That an adult, who was also a community leader and youth worker, would take his own life was a hard reality for people to swallow.
The news of Joseph’s suicide hit close to home. I thought about the past five years of my life as a community organizer, and all those moments, nights, months that I’d “gone under” and no one knew about it. That was no one’s fault but my own; it’s often much easier to avoid internal problems by staying busy helping everyone else. Community organizing had become my way of avoiding the deep feelings of isolation I’ve felt on and off for most of my childhood and adult life. But then again, it’s not like the culture of the community I was a part of encouraged this kind of disclosure. How many Nigerians or people of color do you see talking openly about depression? The very thought of posing the topic activates the middle-aged African woman’s voice inside my head: “Depression? What’s that? Ojare, there are people with real problems — starving on the street, no where to live, and you, you’re talking about depression??” *insert teeth-sucking here*
I’ve struggled with depression for as long as I can remember, but had never really learned to talk about it. But when the country’s focus shifted to creating safer (LGBT-friendly) spaces for our youth, I realized I had a responsibility to speak, and finally break my silence. I wrote about my coming out and attempted suicide in a piece that was published last year.
However, as I was reflecting on Suicide Prevention Day this morning, I came to the realization that I’ve only ever written and talked about my experience with depression and mental health in the past tense; like it was no longer a reality for me to whisper under my breath ten times a day, “one day at a time”; like every – single – winter, I don’t spend weeks in my pajamas, without the energy or will to eat or even shower, to the point that I lose track of what day it is; like I still don’t have mornings when I wake up and think “I just can’t do it today.”
Food for Thought: In the US, suicide takes the lives of over 30,000 people each year. For young people 15-24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death. The strongest risk factor for suicide is depression. There are twice as many deaths due to suicide as there are for HIV/AIDS. And men, are at a higher risk than women. You would think that the LGBT community (in particular, communities of color) would make it a priority to address the stigma around mental health. But so far, the silence remains.
I myself was inspired by a brave activist’s vulnerable speech about her personal struggle with drug addiction at a dyke march several years ago. Since then, I’ve made it a point to project that kind of transparency, openness — humanness — into every part of my life in which I have influence. For instance, I believe it’s extremely important for someone in my position to talk frequently and openly about mental health (and how to practice self-care). I intentionally refrain from romanticizing community leadership to others who have been inspired by my work and make it clear that this seemingly endless supply of energy I have is only possible because I’ve learned how to really take care of myself. Nevertheless, the fact is, as a collective group, activists simply do not talk about mental health enough. We spend so much time trying to maintain our images as pillars of strength and resiliency, “empowering” other people, that I think we ourselves often forget that we are not superhuman.
So here’s a reminder: Life as a leader can be very rewarding, but it can also be very lonely and taxing on your spirit. We’re sponges for inspiration, awe, disdain, envy, disrespect, all of it. In fact, just by being visible, people automatically think they have full access to who you are, the right to comment on your personal life, spit at your values and beliefs. A good friend of mine once said to me, “We’re not paid nearly enough to be treated like celebrities.” I laughed but the statement has stayed with me; it haunts me anytime I read a tabloid about Britney Spears, when a politician’s quotes are taken out of context, when people say really mean things about Obama… They forget that these leaders — these people are human beings, who feel and have emotions just as they do. For some reason, when you’re in the spotlight, people can’t see the blood flowing through your veins illuminated; you become a symbol of something, an issue they support or rally against, an obstacle, an institution. And when they want to take you down, it is no fun.
My way of dealing with the ups and downs that occur in this path has been to set up very clear boundaries for myself. I practice self-care religiously and have adopted other long-term strategies for maintaining a healthy mindset during both the standing ovation and the onslaught of criticism. They don’t work all the time, and they won’t work for everybody, but they work often and well enough for me. And just like with every other type of health care, every little bit counts.
Warning, PSA to follow:
Maintaining good mental health is key to continuing our work (and not constantly burning out); so even if you’re a martyr that would rather care for a community before yourself; just think of it this way, you in bad shape means your community is in bad shape.
Over the next few weeks, as my way of contributing to the discussion about mental health, I will be sharing my own personal tips, strategies, and philosophies with you, my readers. My hope is that some of what I share will resonate enough with you that you pick and choose which tips and practices to apply to your own life. I doubt that this post — or the ones to come — will make even a small dent in the work we have to do as a community to combat the stigma around mental health. But just as with any kind of daily health care routine, I am positive that these tips, practiced often enough, will turn into the long-term healthy behaviors our community needs to heal itself.
So join me in the self-care revolution. I encourage you to share/post your own tips as well, so that we can all support each other as we strive for collective community health. Let us say no to the martyr complexes that plague activist communities. Let us say no to setting a bad example for others through unhealthy workaholic tendencies. We can change the face of activism from being a worn-out, on-the-verge-of-burnout humble activist that complains all the time to an energetic, enthusiastic, and optimistic armor of healthy mind, body, and spirit! We would all be better able to support each other if we could learn to better take care of ourselves. It won’t happen overnight, but we can get there… as long as we take it one day at a time.