Mental Health and Activism

Prose and Stories

By Gabrielle Ferrell

Public activism is prioritized over personal activism. The mental health of the BIPOC community, specifically of wmn and non-binary folks alike, tends to be neglected due to the urgency of frontline social justice, and as a result, not seen as an integral part of the revolution. In addition, the pandemic has caused us all to experience tremendous change, loss, and adaptation to various types of “new normal,” globally. In the midst of it all, why haven’t we, some of the most oppressed people, asked ourselves, “how am I feeling and what do I need right now,” more frequently?

Many people define an activist as a person who passionately puts themselves at the forefront of solving social justice issues. A person who dedicates their time, energy, emotion, and effort to push for real, lasting change for groups of people who are marginalized. This person is likely to support movements that benefit the earth and environment as well. This is all true; However, I argue that an activist is anyone on a healing journey, too. Especially if that person’s identity lies at the intersection of marginalization. 

For a majority of us, feminist activism throughout 2021 has consisted of mentally recovering from the effects of 2020, and the other madness that this new year brought with it. The calm before the storm for me looked like getting sick back in December of 2019 and not wondering why my usual winter cold consisted of wheezing (which I now believe was COVID); thinking that the one person in New York who had contracted it would get better and the newsreels would continue to run normally; believing my Journalism Law teacher in March when she said to the class that the University of Connecticut would be closing for a couple of weeks until things got more stable, just for the entire world to enter a collective, unprecedented shut-down. There have been countless moments where I found myself bracing for the next announcement like a person in a crash does while their car is going out of control. This feeling was shared amongst pretty much everyone, young and old. The pandemic hit every single human on earth like a truck, so there should be no reason to act like we are all okay. 

In the midst of the world turning upside down, so many things changed in my life. My aunt-in-law gave birth in a hospital room with only my uncle there beside her (which for Latinx people feels like a sin for the family not to be there) per the COVID policies enacted in March 2020. I graduated with my Bachelor’s in Journalism, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Sociology, from UConn from the laptop screen in my bedroom. I started my Master’s of Women’s and Gender Studies at Southern Connecticut State University virtually, and my graduate assistant position within the program the same way. But what affected me the most was that besides the alterations that the pandemic brought upon us, there began to be a tremendous loss. 

My cousin passed away from cancer in October 2020 and we were not able to go and see her and say goodbye due to COVID precautions. My boyfriend’s older relative passed away from the coronavirus. His grandfather passed away soon after. Our family friend of 20 years passed away after being involved in a car accident. My boyfriend’s cousin passed away in a motorcycle crash. His coworker took his own life. And these are just a few of many other devastatingly difficult passings and situations. To add to this, I struggled to hear people’s stories of their losses and tribulations. Many lost both parents and/or grandparents, children, wives, husbands. Countless across the globe struggled to gain access to PPE and the vaccine, went through alarming patterns of suffering and loss, which is all still happening as we speak. All of this turned me, an African American and Puerto Rican woman, into therapy for the first time, and I have not looked back since. One thing that has felt constant through all of the change is that I am not alone, which is a bittersweet statement to make. I am among millions of people who have lost their loved ones, their sense of stability, and who they were prior to the pandemic. Many struggled due to COVID-19, others due to gender, racial, and/or sexual violence. No matter what the situation, everything connects back to mental health. This past year taught me that no one is immune to mental trauma, and just as truthfully, no one is really alone. 

PTSD, also known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, can show up as many different things, in many different ways. There is a stereotype about PTSD being something that only post-war veterans have. I can speak for the Black and Puerto Rican communities when I say that if you let that acronym roll off your tongue, or to even talk about seeing a therapist, you will be seen as una tipa loca, as I have before. But the statistics tell us that our experiences and mental struggles are valid. 

According to Project Hope, it was concluded last year that depression is twice as prevalent in women compared to men and is the “second leading cause of the global disability burden.” It gets worse when you look at the issue with an intersectional lens. Erica Martin Richards, M.D., Ph.D. of John Hopkins, tells us that African-American women are “half as likely to seek [mental] help” compared to their Caucasian counterparts. Similarly, “approximately 34% of Hispanic/Latinx adults with mental illness receive treatment each year compared to the U.S. average of 45%. This is due to many unique barriers to care,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Also, Mental Health America recently published that over 827,000 Native and Indigenous people reported experiencing a mental illness this past year. And as we go deeper into identity politics, the numbers are unnerving. 

Talk of mental health has most recently been in relation to coping with the pandemic. During this past year’s SCSU Women’s and Gender Studies virtual conference, “Gender, Race, Community, & Conflict: Pursuing Peace and Justice,” Jill Bassett, Ph.D., Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at Quinnipiac University, who specializes in medical, mental health, socialization, and other needs of the student body, spoke about vicarious trauma and what that has looked like for all of us as of late. She said that trauma that happens in our day-to-day lives, such as the weariness we may feel after hearing someone talk about something terrible that happened to them, reading the news about yet another BIPOC person being brutalized by police, or hearing updates of the death toll from COVID-19. She emphasized how these emotions are stored in our bodies, whether we are conscious of it or not, and how that might show up for us physically and within our own behaviors and thought processes. It made me realize how BIPOC have experienced vicarious trauma more than we realize, especially when dealing with our histories, generational trauma, the social justice issues that have skyrocketed throughout Tr*mp’s presidency, and the pandemic. 

To lift this internal baggage, we have to realize that everything that activism is about has to do with healing. It involves the healing of oppressed people such as Natives and Indigenous folks, the Black community, Latinx, Asian, and every single other group of people of color. It involves white people doing their own generational/ancestral and personal healing that targets their biases to help us destroy the evil, colonial, white-supremacist foundations that our governments and leaderships have been founded on. No matter how you identify, healing is necessary. It steers us in the right direction to interchangeably rest and create change . If we do this type of activist work that doesn’t tend to reach the headlines, which involves taking care of our traumas, the revolution will become increasingly more powerful than it already is. 

So, the next question we should be asking ourselves collectively is, how do we start? What should we do? First, lean on your communities. Communal healing is one of the most powerful ways in which we can resist. If you lack a trustworthy community, and even if you don’t, therapy/counseling, mentorship, group support, inner-child healing practices, and so many more mental health exercises and practices are available to us. At the most basic level, we need to be resting mentally, emotionally, and physically. We have to connect with our bodies and minds and look at them as interconnected. We don’t need to be in a clinical office to heal, but we need to put the work in, even if that looks like taking five minutes of our morning to do breathing techniques. 

In this era, people are learning that mental health, especially that of BIPOC, is more serious and necessary than mainstream media, our cultures, and society as a whole has made it seem throughout history. We cannot continue to fill the cup of toxic-systemic-destruction without pouring into ourselves first. Practicing self-love when the world has taught us we are undeserving of it is the rawest, most powerful form of activism there is, and we need to be on the frontlines for that every single day. 

Hamadeh, Rawan. “Women Carry an Undue Mental Health Burden. They Shouldn’t Have to.” Project HOPE, 19 May 2021, .
“Hispanic/Latinx.” NAMI, nx.
“Native and Indigenous Communities and Mental Health.” Mental Health America, al-health.
Richards, Erica Martin. “Mental Health among African-American Women.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, mong-african-american-women.

Gabrielle Ferrell is a 23-year-old Puerto Rican and African-American journalist, blogger, and activist who elevates the voices of Black, Indigenous, people of color, and the LGBTQIA+ community through her work. She is a graduate student and assistant in the Women’s and Gender Studies master’s program at Southern Connecticut State University where she plans to use her research to enhance her activism and career path. Aside from her passion for acting beyond theory and catalyzing change through practice, Gabby loves matcha tea, music, traveling the world, good books, and connecting with good souls.

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