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25 November 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 12:10pm

Young, on the left and absolutely exhausted

How can we better protect the mental health of young activists?

By David Lawrence

This year’s Young Fabians Political Writing Competition was judged by the New Statesman’s editor-in-chief, Jason Cowley. The below article is one of three runners-up in the competition.

“Nobody,” says my therapist, “lies on their deathbed and says, ‘Gosh, I wish I went to more think tank events.’”

This particular therapy session preceded the Labour conference in September 2019. I was anxious and overwhelmed by the prospect of a weekend of little sleep, endless WhatsApp messages and alcohol-fuelled gossip. Yet, in many ways, the annual party conference is also just a microcosm of the exhausting, exhilarating and demanding daily life of young activists on the left.

My day job is in politics. I used to run an MP’s parliamentary office and I am now a political adviser to a trade policy charity. But this is only half the story: my free time is taken up by committees and events with the Fabians, Christians on the Left, Chinese for Labour and my CLP. And, of course, Twitter. I know plenty of people who do far more than me.

A 2019 British Medical Journal study found that surveyed MPs are more likely than people in comparable jobs to experience mental health problems, and half of them would not be willing to discuss it with colleagues. Furthermore, mental health seems to be a particular challenge for young people in politics. Though there are limited statistics on this demographic, I have spent plenty of time in student politics, on political WhatsApp groups and in CLP meetings – and it’s clear that mental health problems are common. Aside from the sheer exhaustion of endless meetings and events on top of their day-jobs, activists feel a pressure to be constantly switched on to the never-ending Twitter news cycle and expected to have the latest “take” on every issue. This can lead to anxiety, stress and depression. 

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There are several possible reasons for why mental health issues are so prevalent among young activists. Perhaps it’s because we, as humans, are desperate to find belonging – and politics, though this might seem counterintuitive, can be a particularly difficult place to find it. Political groups can easily become tribes and factions, with internal machinations and an inherent “us and them” mindset. Friendships can be ruined by political competition and debate can turn into outright nastiness, creating a culture of mistrust and paranoia. Twitter, with its pile-ons and clinical ways of measuring success, through followers and likes, only exacerbates the individualistic atmosphere.

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Being on the left, specifically, brings its own pressures. Almost every activist I’ve met is sincerely motivated by a desire to make the world a better place. This ambition, however admirable, can be overwhelming. It creates pressure on young people as individuals to address, solve and have a “good take” on every political issue from racism to climate change, while also trying to stay on top of high rents with low-paid jobs, and move through a changeable period of life. It can be paralysing.

So, what can we do about it? There are small things we, as activists, can do ourselves. We can mute conversations on WhatsApp; remember to do things for fun. But a bigger task is to detoxify political spaces. Moving conversations from Twitter to in-person meetings (which has, of course, been difficult during the Covid-19 pandemic) can help to build genuine relationships and allow for “disagreeing well”. Zero tolerance of online harassment among activist groups, including Twitter pile-ons, is also essential, as is mental health support and safeguarding for young activists in the Labour Party.

Perhaps the most important step for those of us on the left would be to recognise that this is an issue with broader political ramifications. It matters for the cause of the left that young people – many of them future leaders – feel able to be involved with politics without suffering from anxiety and depression. Furthermore, mental health challenges are likely to be even more prevalent among those with lower levels of economic security and those at greater risk of online abuse, such as women, LGBT+ people and racial minorities.

Politics may never be the easy route, but it should be possible to engage with it while maintaining good mental health. Young activists are our political future, and if we were free to throw ourselves into politics without compromising our mental health, I believe we would have so much to offer.