For me, Reading Week could not have come at a more perfect time. Essays and assignments were piling up, but my energy was being consumed by thoughts of other things. I’ve been feeling disheartened about trying to achieve the future I want to see for those with disabilities in Ireland. I think I have come down with a nasty case of activist burnout.
Caring so deeply about an issue of injustice combined with being impatient and unwilling to wait for the situation to improve can lead to activism burnout. The emotional strain of being stuck in an unequal, unfair society and feeling like what you do isn’t helping can take its toll on any activist.
I am one of many disability activists based in Trinity, and I am lucky to call the others with the same interest as mine my friends. Recently, I spoke to one of these friends about how I’m feeling, and they told me they were feeling the same way. They told me, understandingly, that I should take a break because, at the end of the day, I’m not going to be able to give my all to a deserving cause if my heart just isn’t in it.
When I experience activist burnout, my main symptom is a feeling of hopelessness about fighting for awareness and a more accessible world. Sometimes it is hard to see past the present and envisage a future where the goal of activism comes true. There are some days where I feel like no matter how loud I shout or how many angry emails I write, it’s all futile in the end. Progress is slow, and sometimes it is so slow it almost seems static.
“At the age of only sixteen, Thunberg has been thrust into the limelight for her passionate environmental activism, and, as a result, is repeatedly mocked for behaviours related to her Aspergers.”
The college activism sphere is alive and thriving. At any given time, there are numerous campaigns in action. Currently, the Extinction Rebellion have the world’s attention, and with the founding of the campaign’s Trinity branch, their sphere of influence is growing more and more. The radical, unrelenting activism of climate activists is sure to leave them feeling overwhelmed, especially considering that there are people in the world who deny climate change and question the work of activism.
Campaigns come and go. During my time in college I have seen many successful campaigns. In 2018, the campaign to get Aramark out of our campus cafes staged a protest and launched a social media campaign. Aramark is an external company that also caters for Ireland’s Direct Provision centres, and students called for Trinity to break their contract with the company that supports the oppression within Direct Provision. Since then, this campaign has fizzled out.
Did activism burnout get to these campaigners too? Whilst most students were sympathetic to the cause, the College did not revoke their contract. I hope that we can expect to see a revival of such a necessary campaign soon.
I wonder how activists like Greta Thunberg, Raif Badawi and Laverne Cox are relentless with their activism, with the added pressure of being famous and constantly critiqued by the media. The case of Greta Thunberg concerns me greatly. At the age of only sixteen, Thunberg has been thrust into the limelight for her passionate environmental activism, and, as a result, is repeatedly mocked for behaviours related to her Aspergers. Thunberg seems to brush this criticism off easily. I wish I could do the same.
Being a disability activist in such a cloistered space like Trinity has its benefits. As noted above, the community of people who are just as passionate as I am are there to support me when I’m feeling as down as I currently am. I know that if I need to take some time off to take care of myself, I will have a support network behind me to welcome me back with open arms when I’m feeling better.
“Activism… has no such set expiry date, and with there being no end in sight for inequality, it can feel futile sometimes.”
Everyone experiences burnout at some point in life. As college students, burnout plays a prominent role in all of our lives. However, the exhaustion and stress of college has an expiry date since it ceases once the assignment is turned in or the exam is sat. Activism has no such set expiry date, and with there being no end in sight for inequality, it can feel futile sometimes.
Recent events in Ireland and Northern Ireland give me hope. After years and years of relentless campaigning, activists finally succeeded and won the legalisation of gay marriage and the decriminalisation of abortion. Just thinking of the joy and relief these activists must have felt when their hopes and dreams came true gives me the motivation I need when I’m feeling disheartened about my activism. I want to feel that joy and relief someday too.