72 Days Later: Mental health and sustainable activism in the Trump Era

The White House is lit with blue lights in honor of World Autism Awareness Day, Sunday, April 2, 2017, in Washington. On World Autism Awareness Day, we highlight the importance of addressing the causes and improving the treatments for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), President Donald Trump said in a presidential proclamation. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

It’s been 72 days since Donald J. Trump took the oath of office in what is perhaps the most sacred and timeless hallmark of our democracy, the peaceful transition of power. For many, the image of the Barack and Michelle Obama exiting the National Mall via Marine One after the Inauguration feels like yesterday, but maybe now a bit more real though no less Hollywood.

First, it was seeing the pictures of the Obamas on a well-deserved tropical vacation: being happy Barack had the chance to kick back and jet-ski, but also wondering how relaxed he really could be, although the glow of pure joy on his face was so genuine. Immediately after, it was the confirmation that there was no “pivot.” There was absolutely no satisfaction in an “I told you so” – but the reality of it all spurred, and continues to spur, activism across the country. The Trump White House would be no different than the Trump campaign, and the “alternative fact” phrase was born soon after. Later, it was realizing mobile news notifications referring to the White House were not talking about President Obama; and now, there’s still the cringe every time CNN alerts the world of claims of wiretapping, updates on “the wall” or one of Trump’s many face-palm quips, most recently about the famous suffragette: “Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony? I’m shocked that you’ve heard of her.” Of course, while we still desperately hope for the success of this administration for the good of the country, it is increasingly clear that the change we want to see is not coming from the Oval Office, it’s coming straight from us.

Much has happened within these first few months, and as we approach the 100-day milestone the thought of roughly 1,360 more can still be hard to fathom – whether you are directly organizing, living fearful of the loss of your civil liberties and rights, or both. Yet as we look forward, it is imperative that we take concerted efforts to maintain long-term, sustainable activism. Unlike this administration’s modus operandi, there is no moving on from an issue, or walking away from a critical debate such as healthcare after a whooping 17 days. The willingness of the Trump administration to literally walk away from healthcare goes to show where their loyalties lie, their image, and that they do not have the perseverance (or attention span) for such tough battles. They are wrong to think the same of us, and like all things in life, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.

This weekend, a workshop on “Actively Operating: Strategies for Self-Care and Interpersonal Activism” was jointly hosted by the UConn Student Coalition for Social Justice, Women’s Center, Community Outreach, Mental Health Services and UConnPIRG as part of their sustainable activism series. The premise of the workshop was that activists’ self care and mental health are absolutely necessary for the success of any movement. Megan Handau, a student leader on campus, commented, “I have definitely experienced burnout, and I know that fellow activists have as well. Talking about maintaining our mental health while engaging in activism can seem like it’s diverting your energy from the fight, but it’s completely necessary. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” In the wellness section of the New York Times this past week, Lesley Alderman similarly discussed the need in her piece, “Therapists Offer Strategies for Postelection Stress.” The constant checking of social media is an important trigger that becomes cyclical in nature: Dr. Eric Hollander explained how feelings of uncertainty can cause people to check the news constantly for information and in search of assurance; however, the news “only heightens the worry and perpetuates the cycle."

Taking a break from such media is an important strategy, along with actually talking civilly and one-on-one with those across the political divide from you. “Practicing empathy for different points of view can help you feel less distressed,” Dr. Steven C. Hayes. Starbucks has followed this idea by partnering up with a startup app called “Hi From the Other Side” to establish a program where people are matched with someone with different views from them, and set to meet at a Starbucks location to unlock their code for a gift card.

Political action and activism is fundamentally healing in itself. As the saying goes, “If you are tired, learn to rest, not to quit.” We are all at different stages in our personal lives and activism, but we can find solidarity in these truths. Taking a step back from time to time to reenergize is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength, which enables us to reflect and be a more effective activist as we continue to engage and come back “out of the woods.” 


Marissa Piccolo is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marissa.piccolo@uconn.edu. She tweets@marissapiccolo.