Social justice fight can take mental health toll on activists

JoAnne Viviano,Patrick Cooley
Amber Evans (in white blouse), hugs fellow People's Justic Project member Tammy Fournier-Alsaada (green jacket) during a 2017 protest at the Franklin County Courthouse. Evans died by suicide earlier this year. [Karl Kuntz/Dispatch]

When 23-year-old MarShawn McCarrel II took his life outside the Ohio Statehouse in February 2016, social-justice activists who had fought with him were devastated.

But they pushed forward, taking little time to address their grief.

“We knew nothing about healing, healing practices, at all. ... We just kept moving and kept trying to build and holding onto the work,” said Tammy Fournier-Alsaada, 57, of the Northeast Side, who has organized for both the Ohio Organizing Collaborative and the People’s Justice Project.

>>Read more: Remembering Amber Evans

Earlier this year, they were rocked again by the suicide death of another colleague, 28-year-old Amber Evans, whose body was found in the Scioto River in March.

This time, the loss came after the crushing November defeat of Issue 1, a proposed amendment to the state constitution intended to reduce Ohio's inmate population by redirecting nonviolent drug offenders from prison into treatment.

The losses caused many to stop in their tracks, said Amanda Hoyt, 45, of Clintonville, who had campaigned relentlessly alongside Evans for the initiative.

Hoyt said she suffered a breakdown months before the election after discovering that the language to be used on the ballot was unfavorable to Issue 1 proponents. She suffered panic attacks for 12 days and could not leave her bed.

“I knew we were going to lose,” Hoyt said. “... And I felt like I let down all my friends. All the work we did. And I felt like those 10,000 people who could have had a chance to come out of prison, I ruined it for them.”

Less than a month after Evans’ body was found, Hoyt, Alsaada and fellow advocate Kevin O’Donnell talked with The Dispatch about the mental toll on those engaged in social justice activism. They spoke, sometimes through tears, about 60-hour workweeks, encountering pervasive and persistent racism and, in retrospect, expecting too much of others who worked beside them.

Evans had dedicated nearly every fiber of her being to social justice, her friends and coworkers said.

Along with advocating for Issue 1, she had lobbied against the use of police officers in schools and protested police use of force, all the while mentoring high school students and tutoring dropouts working to earn their diplomas.

Experts caution that suicide is complex, and easy answers are all too frequently elusive. But friends and family said Evans put a tremendous amount of pressure on herself, and some worried that she was stretching herself too thin.

On Jan. 28, the night she disappeared, Evans sent a cryptic text message to loved ones: “I love you, I’m sorry.”

In the days that followed, Evans’ boyfriend, Mark Condo, found that she had emailed him a link to a letter telling coworkers and loved ones that she was tired and needed the rest that her passing would provide.

Stressors in the social justice movement include butting heads with massive, long-established systems, the need to constantly be vigilant for the black community and carrying past traumas, Alsaada said.

“It continues to eat away at us, and there’s very little wins, so we constantly are grasping for hope,” she said.

Many, she said, come to social justice work having suffered racism, violence, poverty or some other trauma. And because such movements thrive on relationships and sharing, advocates dig up difficult memories and listen to the stories of others, creating new layers of trauma.

“We don’t know enough about holding trauma, and we’ve created these spaces where we think we do,” Alsaada said. “The lesson I’ve learned is you have to guard yourself.”

People who do social justice work are generally highly committed, working long hours under difficult circumstances for organizations that are undersupported, said Dr. David Spiegel, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University School of Medicine.

With odds stacked against them, the realistic chances of success may be slim and, if they are making personal sacrifices for the work, failure can be painful, he said.

Focusing on the mission, many may think everything else is unimportant, Spiegel added, and that what they are suffering pales in comparison with the suffering of people they are fighting for, so there are no limits.

Advocates should look after themselves, and people who run organizations should help make that happen, said Spiegel, who served on work groups on stressor and trauma-related conditions for recent editions of the American Psychiatric Association’s manual of mental disorders.

Alsaada hit her wall in July 2018. She took a two-month leave from the work before returning, only to take another two months off, then leave the organization for good. She turned to therapy.

“What I was doing was waking up in a way that the blinders were off,” she said. “And I was seeing the world for the way it was, and that was really, really sad for me, and I needed time to mourn what I knew to be true.”

After the Issue 1 loss, O’Donnell said he was struck with "how big the beast is that we're fighting." He questioned, “Can we even win? Is winning even a thing?”

After Evans’ disappearance, O'Donnell struggled to think about anything else and, in February, slipped into a severe depression — a condition with which he had struggled before.

“I was paralyzed, and I just couldn’t see a way forward, and was starting to feel that feeling: I can’t do this, I can’t complete the mission,” said O’Donnell, 26, of the Old North neighborhood.

He called friends, who took him to the hospital for treatment, and he left his social justice work for a month.

Evans put in long hours as executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition, but was no stranger to extended work days even before she secured that position.

People’s Justice Project founder Aramis Sundiata recalls Evans volunteering, arriving at headquarters like clockwork every morning, doing “grunt work” before leaving for a full day of work at a traditional job.

The protests she participated in and her appearances at Columbus City Council meetings received plenty of media attention, but Evans worked quietly behind the scenes to make sure people of lesser means had transportation and places to live, Condo said.

“We had people live with us a couple of times,” he said. “She gave a lot of herself to make sure people had what they needed.”

Frankie Mehmen, 19, of Hilliard, worked with Evans as her mentor in 2018 as part of an internship program.

“She was always doing something,” Mehmen said. “Amber's whole thing was helping people, passionate about anything where people were not being treated equally.”

Success often felt frustratingly out of reach. But Evans always remained upbeat, her peers said.

When Issue 1 failed, Mehmed said, “I texted her, freaking out because I was really disappointed.” But Evans appeared unfazed, pointing to the 1.5 million people who voted for the initiative as a jumping-off point for future action.

Still, Condo said, it had become clear in the days leading up to Evans’ disappearance that she wasn't happy. He wouldn't speculate on why she took her life, but he said she felt trapped by a sense of obligation.

"Even if she wasn't happy and felt like she wanted to leave," he said, "she felt if she were to leave, she would be abandoning the very people she wanted to help."

O’Donnell’s goal is to distribute the social justice load more evenly and to work with joy, finding a path that nourishes his soul and helps others do the same.

“We win by linking arms and facing this stuff head-on together and looking out for each other in the process,” he said. “I don’t want any more dead heroes, and I don’t want to be one.”

Alsaada said such changes are out of necessity and guidance on grief and trauma must come from experts and research and experience.

“We’ve had to shift,” she said. “We do have a community of people who care about each other. ... We have to make real commitments to a real healing process.”

If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, reach Ohio's 24/7 Crisis Text Line by texting 4HOPE to 741741. By phone, contact the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-221-5445; the Teen Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-294-3300; or the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255/TALK (or 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish speakers).