There is a very real risk among animal activists of developing a mental health condition that not many are talking about. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – a mental health condition initially understood predominantly in the context of war veterans, psychology has since come a long way to explain similar experiences in others who have experienced traumatic events. Traumatic experiences that can develop into PTSD include near-death experiences, serious injury, or sexual abuse. There is another way we can experience trauma however – that is, through witnessing it occurring to others rather than ourselves. Animal activists do just this, that too, on a regular basis.
Having distressing emotional and physical responses to trauma are a normal part of the human condition. And while for many people these responses will naturally decline, for some, they will linger well beyond the event and can develop into a mental health concern. Some people are more vulnerable to developing PTSD than others however, and many of the risk factors associated with its development are not within the victim’s control, such as age and gender, or factors to do with the trauma itself, such as how severe it is. Unlike it was once believed, PTSD is not due to weakness in the sufferer, nor does it imply that there is something ‘abnormal’ about them. As stated by holocaust concentration-camp survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl –
“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
Following exposure to animal suffering, activists may go on to find themselves struggling to forget the graphic violence they witnessed, or the sensations they felt while they were there, having nightmares, or difficulties sleeping, noticing frequent feelings of anger and despair, unwanted memories of what they saw in the slaughterhouse each time they walk past the processed bodies of animals in the supermarket, feeling distant and cut off from other people in their lives including friends or family, or holding beliefs that the world they live in is a horrible and unjust place. These are just some of the symptoms one can experience in PTSD. The upside is – PTSD can be treated. And with appropriate support, a sufferer can come to terms with the trauma they’ve experienced.
Why animal activists?
There are hundreds of thousands of videos and images across the internet depicting cruelty and violence towards animals in slaughterhouses, factory farms, labs, and so on. None of it fiction, and most of it very much legal, even routine practice. Behind the lens of this captured footage is an activist who has likely put him or herself in danger to get there, and must now manage whatever emotion arises to assure what is happening in front of them makes it to the screens of others around the world. The activist knows that in order to someday stop this violence from happening, they need to continue to witness and capture, not to save the animal losing his life in front of them. So they continue to watch, as the animal continues to suffer.
Another activist spends hours of their average weeknight sifting through this footage, in order to cut, edit, and execute an effective piece of media in the hope that it will reach the hearts and minds of people watching. Another activist spends their night watching the video, reading the article, or sifting through the photos, with the aim that they will be better informed, albeit distraught, so that they too can pass on the knowledge about the current state of animals behind the blood-stained doors of animal industries.
In addition to the impact of witnessing violence, is the risk of activists experiencing violence or injury first hand – a major precursor to developing PTSD. For example, in 2011 an activist was shot in the face while protesting duck hunting in Victoria, Australia. Crew on Sea Shepherd vessels have feared their safety after being rammed by Japanese whaling ships whilst out in sea. I have also spoken to photojournalist investigators who described being chased, shot at, and threatened by farmers whilst investigating factory farm conditions.
Each of these scenarios has the capacity to take a steep psychological toll on the activist. And while these psychological difficulties may be a very fitting response to what the activist endures, it is a response that they need not live with while trying to change the lives of animals. It is a response that can be treated, improving the activist’s wellbeing and effectiveness.
What does PTSD look like?
PTSD is different from posttraumatic stress. Almost anyone who experiences a traumatic event will likely notice some of the symptoms described above. Many animal activists would have experienced psychological distress resembling posttraumatic stress symptoms at some point in their trajectory. The number of symptoms, degree to which they occur, and how long they stick around (typically more than one month), are key factors in determining the presence of PTSD. PTSD can develop after experiencing a single trauma, or it can develop as a result of enduring multiple traumas. In the case of activists, PTSD can develop from exposure to an isolated case of animal violence, or through repeated exposure.
There are numerous symptoms that make up PTSD, and these can present in different ways for different people. These symptoms fall into four main categories:
- Reexperiencing symptoms – such as flashbacks (i.e. feeling as though one is reliving the trauma), nightmares related to the trauma, intrusive thoughts, and unwanted memories about the trauma
- Avoidance – this can be both internal or external avoidance. Internal avoidance includes attempting to suppress or distract oneself from thoughts or feelings related to the trauma, for example, trying to keep oneself busy or consuming alcohol or drugs to not have to think about it. External avoidance includes making efforts to avoid places, people, situations, conversations etc that remind the individual of the traumatic situation
- Change in mood/beliefs – changes in mood include increased negative mood states such as despair, anger, guilt, or shame, as well as decreased positive mood states or difficulties experiencing positive emotions such as happiness or loving feelings. Beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world, also become impacted. If beliefs were negative prior to the trauma, they may be strengthened, if they were positive, then following the trauma they may change into significant negative beliefs. Examples include holding the belief that ‘people are inherently bad’, ‘the world is a dangerous place’, or ‘I’m not good enough’
- Hypervigilance – this includes feeling a heightened sensitivity to surroundings and perceived threat. It may present as frequent anxiety, loss of concentration, sleep difficulties, feeling on edge, becoming easily startled, feeling on guard, or watchful for danger
PTSD is a mental health condition that can only be accurately assessed and diagnosed by an appropriate mental health professional. Mental health professionals such as psychologists are trained in the identification and treatment of PTSD. If you suspect that you may have PTSD, or that some of the abovementioned symptoms apply to you, then it is advisable to speak to a medical or mental health professional for guidance. If PTSD does not seem a likely mental health concern for you, however you relate to some of the symptoms discussed, you may be experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue. Burnout is often a response to prolonged stress that can resemble depression whilst compassion fatigue occurs as a result of being exposed to the challenges of trying to help others who are suffering, including animals. You can read more about how compassion fatigue may impact animal activists here.
What can activists do about PTSD?
Animal activists find themselves in difficult roles – on one hand, they are aware that what they witness may impact their mental wellbeing, but on the other hand, witnessing is also often a crucial part of their role in advocacy. So the answer to this question is not as simple as avoiding potentially traumatising situations. There is currently limited research exploring activism trauma, particularly factors that help mitigate symptoms or prevent further psychopathology after witnessing animal suffering. There is however a wealth of understanding about what one can do to build resilience and cope with some of the psychological distress that occurs after experiencing trauma. Important areas of consideration include awareness of what is happening to you after a traumatic experience, understanding that this is able to be treated, regular self-care practices including healthy and regular sleeping and eating patterns, seeking social support or talking about your experiences with trusted networks. A very important approach is to seek professional support so you can find out a little bit more about what you’re experiencing and whether you have PTSD. If you do meet the diagnosis, or elements of it, then you may choose the option of undertaking psychotherapy which can be greatly effective.
Though there are some psychological challenges that are guaranteed to come with animal activism, activists don’t need to live with PTSD. If we are in a constant heightened state of mental distress, it can have dire consequences on our own wellbeing and our effectiveness as activists. The success of this movement depends on us looking after ourselves so we can give it the energy that we want to give.
If you’d like more information about PTSD, preventative and coping methods, as well as emerging research surrounding PTSD, visit https://www.ptsd.va.gov/.