Millions of people every year participate in some form of advocacy or grassroots work. At first, most people experience excitement or anticipation at the prospect of doing something that makes a difference. Yet, few walk into their journey aware of the pitfalls facing them and how they can affect their mental health. Over time, the everyday grind can take its toll. Before one knows it, excitement turns to stress, and stress results in burnout. That can lead to a host of other potential problems.
There’s no denying there can be profound negative mental health impacts due to political advocacy and grassroots work. Recently, I talked with Tamera Lynn Stewart. She has decades of experience in grassroots campaign work and has learned how to overcome the challenges of burnout and stress. Today, she shares a bit of her story and how she keeps her mental health positive in an intensely political environment.
Let’s get started…
Don: Hi, Tamera. How are you? I know you have a lot going on, but I’m curious as to what you’re working on this week outside of your own personal lobbying efforts.
Tamera: It has been a semi-stressful and hectic few weeks, but I thrive in those situations, and I’m fired up and excited about the new year and the upcoming legislative sessions. After some ups and downs across the country, I began reflecting on the impact this work has had on me. That led to me asking colleagues and other advocates from causes outside my own a serious question. I was astonished by the wide variety of answers.
Like everything else in my life, there is no way I could be satisfied with just knowing there isn’t a simple answer. So, I began trying to understand how it impacts one’s mental health and why.
Don: I’d imagine the emotional toll of reliving your own traumatic experiences, dealing with rejection and disappointment, and the constant pressure to stay informed and knowledgeable does take a toll on one’s mental well-being.
Tamera: Each of those reasons surfaced often when I asked others about the impact on their lives, but there was something else that was near universal, which surprised me. Most of the grassroots activists and organizers I asked all recalled the exact moment they had their bubble burst. That moment when their initial beliefs about how their advocacy campaign would go or how politics worked were shattered by something that felt like an injustice on a scale they had rarely known.
Some were housewives who wanted to get involved in a cause. Others came from other careers or straight out of college. They stepped up to advocate for an issue. Still, THAT moment of injustice was etched into their minds.
For those who are naturally cynical, they find there are still good elected policymakers out there, on both ‘sides’, who genuinely want to help and do not cave into power and greed. That means they realize they have been lied to by Hollywood, the media, and ‘the other side’ about how evil and greedy politicians are.
On the flip side are those who are naive and believe that all our elected officials only run for office because they want to help others and will put their constituents’ needs above all else.
These individuals believed that sharing their experiences with policymakers could rally support and bring about swift change. They were unable to imagine a world where those elected to represent them could learn about laws or agencies causing harm without inspiring immediate action.
Either way, the proverbial ‘bursting of their bubble’ can take a toll on a person who got into activism or grassroots organizing without a background in politics.
Don: In your experience, what types of negative impacts on mental health are common in grassroots/citizen/volunteer organizers/lobbyists?
Tamera: Depression, Anxiety, and emotional exhaustion are probably the most common. I cannot accurately estimate how common the first two are, but I have observed that many advocates and activists I know personally start out with strong empathy and then eventually become overwhelmed with emotions, leading to exhaustion and burnout.
At the start of their advocacy journey, they often find themselves in tears as they hear mothers testify alongside them about the loss of their children as a result of the policy they are trying to change. At a certain point, some get to the point where they have no emotional energy left to give to their family or themselves. That is why it is so important to find ways to process the trauma, your own and the trauma around you every day.
There is absolutely no shame or embarrassment in being honest with your healthcare team or seeking out a therapist with whom you work well. In fact, I tell people daily that I would be lost if I didn’t have such a great therapist and other compassionate medical professionals caring for me.
Don: It can be difficult to find good health care in some areas. I imagine it’s even worse for mental health care.
How has advocacy impacted your mental health? And, what does it mean to have a great therapist and other compassionate medical professionals care for you?
Tamera: Finding a great therapist was definitely a challenge, and because we moved from Oklahoma to Arkansas and back to Oklahoma over the course of a decade, I had to do that multiple times. With a lot of persistence and a little luck, I was able to find a wonderful primary care provider who arranged the care I needed for my chronic conditions and gave me a list of potential therapists.
Each time I began the process of finding the one which fit my needs and style. Coincidentally, one of the main issues I have worked on with policymakers over the years has been the lack of quality health care, the need to encourage individualized care, and, more recently, mental health care.
While I can say I have definitely experienced emotional exhaustion and have been on the edge of empathy loss a time or two. I would say that overall, the impacts on my mental health from my activism and entrance into the political world have been far more positive than negative. Because I have struggled with a lifetime of medical problems, I have had periods of time where I was depressed, times I asked, ‘Why me’?
Plus, bringing kids into our home who have their own mental health challenges only added to my own medical and pain issues at times. So yes, I relied on my physical and mental healthcare team heavily.
That first day I stepped into the role of advocating for myself and family foster children at the state capitol, it lit something inside of me which has only gotten stronger since.
By finding a purpose, what I now believe is my calling, I have been able to channel the struggles I have had in the past into the passion needed to keep going in spite of immense challenges.
I remember every moment of that first day – from how it felt to the sights and sounds of the buildings I was in. I remember that day just as clearly as I remember the day my bubble burst. I fit into the naive category I mentioned earlier – I really believed once I laid the issue out and explained how many were negatively impacted, there would be near-immediate action to resolve it.
Both of those days are ingrained in my mind as clearly as other major life events, such as the birth of my oldest daughter and the loss of my dad at such a young age.
Don: What suggestions do you have for others who are either just starting out or even those who are already sliding into emotional exhaustion and/or burnout?
Tamera: I am really glad you asked that question. I wish there would have been someone who got to me early on and told me a bit more about what was likely to happen — how to protect myself and even going further — how to thrive.
Thinking about what I wish I had known when I began this journey is what led me to work on an upcoming project. I have spent a lot of time looking for ways to both educate and empower others to speak up for the causes they are passionate about and become engaged in their community, and do so while protecting their physical and mental health.
I look forward to sharing the results of this project when it is complete.
In the meantime, I think it is important to explore the positive mental health benefits. As I mentioned previously, finding my voice and what I believe to be my calling in grassroots organizing and volunteer lobbying has led to a vast improvement in my mental health. The challenges that come with it have served as a source of inspiration, fueling my passion and helping me to maintain a sense of purpose. This has been more effective in relieving my mild depression than years of therapy alone.
I am grateful for the skills and strategies that my therapy and therapists have provided me, as it has allowed me to transform these challenges into opportunities for growth and development rather than feeling overwhelmed or emotionally drained.
Being able to make a difference in my community and advocate for issues that I care about has given me that sense of purpose and fulfillment. The sense of community and camaraderie that comes with working with other like-minded individuals has also been incredibly beneficial for my mental well-being.
Overall, participating in grassroots organizing and volunteer lobbying has been a transformative experience for me, both personally and professionally.
The one other thing I think is important to mention is that everyone has different needs when it comes to their mental health, but all of us benefit from self-care. When we ignore the signs our body sends us, which are telling us the stress is getting overwhelming, it can lead to burnout or worse.
Without paying attention to your body and mental health, you may miss those signs. Make sure you are taking time for yourself and your family and doing things you enjoy outside of working on your cause.
Most importantly, taking care of yourself.
Don: Tamera, thank you for taking the time to share your incredible story so transparently. I’m sure you will be an inspiration to so many who started this journey with the goal of making a difference through a grassroots or advocacy cause.
The Conservative Era, Copyright 2023