How to support the mental health of SRHR advocates

Written by Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues (TARSHI), India

Why is mental health support important in the work that you do?

Stress and burnout affect various aspects of one’s life – from work to health to relationships, and has strong correlations with psychosocial disability if left unmanaged for long. TARSHI’s work on sexuality and SRHR especially operates in the broader taboo on sexuality, reflecting in almost all aspects of human life – from who gets to access resources, like health, education, employment, and public spaces, to our fundamental rights to life and justice. The experiences of marginalisation based on sexuality and gender are high sources of stress as they can affect day-to-day life as well as one’s overall sense of self and wellbeing. For those working on these issues, engaging with people and their struggles can bring about high stress, especially when they may have themselves experienced (or are still experiencing) such marginalisation. Multiple factors such as caste, disability status, class, rural or urban location, religion, etc., intersect with the marginalisation one may face on account of their sexuality, and/or gender identity.

However, the assumption is that those working in non-profits, doing people-work, or are activists, have entered these jobs ‘knowing fully well’ that they will be working with people in various forms of distress, that it pays little, that it is for the long haul because change takes time. The implicit or explicit understanding is that they can never ‘feel’ stress or talk about it. If they feel it, then they are “not fit” to do that job.

This is not true. Those doing people-work/part of civil society organisations/activists etc. have as much need, if not more, as anyone else to self-care, to stress management and burnout prevention. “Being privy to people’s struggles on a daily basis coupled with a sense of helplessness knowing that one cannot do much beyond a point can take its toll on the case worker’s/human rights defender’s health and psycho-social wellbeing.” (from A Needs Assessment Report, 2019). Additionally, many doing this work do so because they feel a ‘calling’ – something about their personal experiences or principles resonate strongly with their work, making them relate strongly with the struggles of the people they work with. But they are not often given the freedom to feel or express stress, or take steps to manage it with self-care, because it is seen as being selfish, or that they are not competent in their work. They feel guilty (or are made to feel guilty – by co-workers, comrades/peers, society, their reporting managers) about putting their needs “above” those they work with.

Self-care is not selfish, and it is not a sign of incompetence. It is a human concern and a part of an individual’s right to wellbeing that goes beyond one’s ‘ability to do work’. That said, it is also important because it keeps those doing people-work ‘tuned in’ to their jobs – stress or burnout have been proven to reduce one’s ability to stay engaged in their work.

However, the wellbeing of those doing people-work doesn’t rest with them alone. Collective care is about seeing wellbeing as beyond just an individual’s responsibility but as something that all members can contribute to and shape together. Collective care contributes to the growth and sustainability of the individual members and of the movement itself.

Self-care and collective care are closely linked, because self-care cannot be sustained if collective care is not maintained. And collective care is hard to imagine when one doesn’t prioritise and understand self-care.

Mental health support, be it through facilitating individual members’ self-care or through collective care, reflects an organisation’s intention towards the wellbeing of all its members.

How can you support the mental health of your colleagues and partners?

At TARSHI, we firmly believe that the key spaces an individual accesses – home, family, workplace/informal groups/collective/movement, educational institutions – have to be Safe, Inclusive, and Self-Affirming (SISA), especially in the context of gender and sexuality.  A SISA space offers an environment that is non-judgmental, rights-based and sexuality-affirming, where people can feel safe and free from fear to talk about, learn about and/or experience their sexuality and wellbeing.

Such spaces can be SISA only if they provide the opportunity for members to understand, acknowledge and freely talk about their stress and concerns with their managers and other team members without fear of being adversely affected for this expression.

It is an unfortunate reality that even in workplaces where stress and burnout are acknowledged, the responsibility for addressing them rests solely with the individual – phrases like “you’re taking too much on” or “you must learn to set boundaries” are commonly heard, without considering the responsibilities of the workplaces or other team members.

Stress management and burnout prevention are not just the responsibility of individuals. Human beings are part of an ecosystem, belonging to multiple institutions – families, workplaces, movements, larger societies, to name a few. Workplaces and collectives must provide an environment conducive for staff and members to be aware of, acknowledge, talk about and seek measures to address stress brought about by their work or by working as part of a movement, without considering it a threat to their work or the movement. This discussion must not be seen as questioning the organisation’s management style (which should be open to change if many feel stressed) or the collective’s intent, although the collective could jointly discuss how they’re working if many members bring up feeling stressed due to its functioning. Most importantly, such discussions should not cast aspersions on the staff member’s or collective member’s interest or ability.

Workplaces could regularly and jointly develop collective care mechanisms that suit diverse team members’ needs, and ensure safe and brave spaces – formal or informal – for all members, across levels, to share their stressors or emotions to the extent they feel comfortable (i.e. not feeling inhibited but also not feeling compelled to share something deeply personal). By directly discussing or through example (or a mix of both!) staff members can build a culture of sensitivity to different people’s lived realities. Senior staff members also have the responsibility to ensure the availability of resources to support team self-care and organisational collective care.

When we worked remotely during the COVID-19 lockdowns, we instituted formal check-ins with all staff members to ensure all of us were speaking regularly with each other and our managers; these were both about the work and specific tasks, as well as whatever else the team members wished to share with each other. Since returning to office, we have continued this practice even though most of us get to meet each other on a regular basis, as we see the value of this space being regularly maintained. It gives us an opportunity to understand each other’s frame of mind, and identify areas of support one may require depending on their mental health.

Finally, we emphasise that mental health at the workplace is a multi-way street! We want all team members, no matter their years of experience, to understand their rights and also contribute to each other’s mental health at the workplace. This requires a strong intention to keep regular conversation and practice going, even in the face of deadlines and the multiple priorities that non-profits/collectives/small teams usually juggle with. This may be difficult (we understand!), but we believe it is essential for the organisation/collective/movement’s longevity and sustainability.

Working in advocacy can be challenging. What advice would you give other advocates working in challenging topics to ensure they are getting the support they need?

Advocacy involves challenging entrenched structures that are major causes of stress – and are beyond our immediate control, say, patriarchy, ableism, a challenging criminal justice system, homonegativity, caste-based discrimination, and more. However much we wish these systemic inequalities did not exist, they do and bring very real stress in our lives. Advocacy is also a long-term process and seeing change in systems and societies and for these structural stressors to disappear may well not happen in one’s lifetime. In these cases, it may not always be possible to address the source of our stress but only just manage it by finding ways to cope with them and tackle their effects in our day-to-day lives.

Regular self-care has a significant role to play here. As does building solidarity with others facing these effects, to navigate and resist societal sources of stress. Sometimes, we may decide to come together and challenge these discriminatory structures. At other times, it may be about sharing resources, tangible or otherwise, to manage these causes of stress. Or offering kindness and comfort as we navigate a world organised around these structures. Open communication and brave (not just safe) spaces created with other players engaged in the advocacy could help individuals share about their stress with honesty and vulnerability, and draw support from others to continue, tweak, or take a break from their work. We believe that all advocacy has to build in a mental health and wellbeing component to ensure the sustainability of the work. We believe that all these support systems can help remind us that it’s not always about bringing one big change in society, but about taking baby steps leading up to a possibility of change.

What does self-care mean to you as an organisation?

At its simplest, self-care is understood as looking after oneself and doing things of positive value for oneself. This implies making an effort and taking time out from other activities and concerns. Self-care affirms that the self is important and looking after that self is at least as important as looking after anybody else, or addressing concerns outside of oneself.

At TARSHI, we believe that self-care is a feminist and human rights issue, because for those of us who do people-work, self-care comes low in their list of priorities, if at all. For many of those who have made it their life’s purpose and work purpose to care for others, caring for themselves is forgotten, considered selfish, or something they are made to feel guilty for – and that is why, taking time out for themselves is radical.

Self-care is a feminist and human rights issue also because there are several kinds of people culturally and socially conditioned to not take time out for themselves. A mother. A person struggling to make ends meet. A caregiver for an older person or someone with a disability. People from the margins are denied the right to self-care.

While we see self-care is an inherent human right, as an organisation working on sexuality, SRHR and wellbeing, we also reaffirm the role that self-care (when supported by collective care) plays in sustaining our members’ (and our team’s) ability to work to take sexual and reproductive rights to all people. It preserves us, helps us understand when to take breaks, and restores our energies as we continue our journey towards sexual wellbeing for all.

More here:

What successes have you had so far in integrating mental-health support into your organisation? What has worked for you?

TARSHI has consistently integrated initiatives on stress management and burnout prevention into its programmes, for internal teams as well as clients/callers/other NGOs etc., for over two decades.

Maintaining the focus in this area has resulted in building a base of knowledge and engagement both within the organisation and externally, on a journey of critical learning. These experiences led TARSHI to advocate for the importance of counsellor self-care from the beginning. The organisation has had a strong component of Burnout Prevention as part of helpline counsellor in-house trainings from the early years over 25 years ago, and has reached out to other individuals and organisations in social services and rights work to focus on this aspect of sustainability.

We consider and practice mental health support by way of helping each other learn to (or strengthen ability to) be self-aware and aware of one another’s emotions, responses, and general state of mind. This could help us anticipate each other’s needs and step up when one of us may need additional support, whether with our tasks or with a conversation. We practise team self-care regularly, learning new techniques from each other. We try to look at the values each of us brings to the table and appreciate, learn from, and enthusiastically acknowledge them.

We do our best to maintain job descriptions, have bi-annual performance conversations, use anonymous 360-degree evaluation processes, and to ensure space for open conversation all times of the year.

We seek to be intentional about activities we sign up for, while being aware of the organisation’s needs to sustain its work. This could include saying no to activities that come up on very short notice, taking a break from work to focus on internal requirements, and even exercising a deep sense of enquiry into our activities – why are we doing these, and how does it contribute to our purpose as well as the larger movement? We try to refute the idea of productivity or linear growth, being more deliberate in where we want the organisation to go in the coming years. These approaches and questions help us stay relevant – to who we want to be and what we want to do.

Going beyond our work, we believe (and hope) that these measures positively affect the staff members personally and they are able to take these conversations to their circles.

What is important to consider when creating a safe space for SRHR advocates?

A first step is to understand the unique stresses that come from working on sexuality and SRHR, given the stigma and taboo attached to these issues at varying levels, in diverse communities. Sexuality and SRHR particularly affect communities marginalised due to their gender identity; sexual identity; disability; occupation; mental health status; class, caste and geographic locations; and more, those who face multiple marginalization, as well as children and young people. In many cases, the causes of stress are systemic, i.e. driven by social, political issues such as homonegative and transnegative environments or laws, armed conflict, regional discrimination, etc. Understanding and acknowledging this diversity in causes of stress is crucial to exploring what a safe space for SRHR advocates would entail.

Equally important is understanding that many SRHR advocates still have to navigate their lives in environments that may be unjust, unequal, patriarchal, and not respectful of human rights. For example, someone who provides awareness and counselling in communities around safer sex methods may find themselves unable to negotiate safer sex methods with their partner at home. Or a peer counsellor working with queer people may themselves be living with unsupportive or prejudiced family members. Managing this kind of dissonance between our work, identities, and a different ‘home’ environment, can be distressing and lead to burnout, if not managed over time. A safe space for SRHR advocates needs to be mindful of this dissonance and offer tools to help members navigate it.

Taking on from this, another point to be mindful of is how accessible this safe space is, and whether it accounts for the needs of all members, irrespective of their identities and marginalisations. Are individuals’ identities and diverse experiences acknowledged and respected?

Finally – and we cannot emphasise this enough – a safe space for SRHR advocates remembers and prioritises pleasure! SRHR advocacy is often focused on violations and unjust treatment, and in the process, it is often easy to forget that individuals also have the right to sexual wellbeing and an enjoyable sexuality – and yes, that includes advocates and activists too!

Do you have any photos, documents or quotations that could help or inspire another organisation or individual? 

Self-care Essentials: – full of resources and ideas on self-care and collective care.

Our short eCourse Reflect, Realign, Renew  – stress management and burnout prevention for people in people-work:

Some ideas for individuals or team members to practise self-care and collective care:

Some social media posts with images – techniques practised by the team:

1.      Link to Twitter post

2.      Link to Instagram post

3.      Link to Instagram post

Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues (TARSHI), India

For over 25 years, TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues) has been working towards expanding sexual and reproductive choices in people’s lives in an effort to enable them to enjoy freedom from fear, infection and reproductive and sexual health problems. TARSHI’s work on sexuality is from an affirmative and rights based perspective, a fresh change from perspectives that often restrict sexuality within a disease prevention, violence against women, or sexual minorities framework.

TARSHI is currently (2019 – 2025) also working towards creating Safe, Inclusive, Self-Affirming, or SISA spaces. A SISA space offers an environment that is non-judgmental, rights-based and sexuality-affirming, where people can feel safe and free from fear to talk about, learn about and/or experience their sexuality and sexual wellbeing. It is an ideal we wish to work towards, where sexuality is no longer surrounded by shame or taboo.