Gun Violence Survivors Won’t Let Activism Burnout Get In Their Way
Carlitos Rodriguez is tired.
Since he survived the mass shooting at his school in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, there has been a school shooting, on average, every 12 days, according to CNN.
“I totally do [feel exhausted],” the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School graduate told MTV News. “Sometimes I have to stop and think, ‘Why am I really doing this?’ It’s just… It’s so hard. We see this happening every single day. And as much as we do, it doesn’t seem to go away.”
“It” is gun violence, enacted both every day against individual people and on a mass scale. Activists like Carlitos — many of them young people who have survived gun violence in some form — are fighting for change as every single gunshot rings out. In 2018, at least 14,116 people in the U.S. were killed by perpetrators using guns; 451 of those deaths occurred in mass shootings. Parkland survivors and activists Carlitos, Ryan Servaites, and Tyah Amoy-Roberts are among those asking their representatives to make a change — to do something to stop the gun violence that took the lives of 17 of their peers and teachers, and wounded 17 more.
Congress, meanwhile, has done nearly nothing and has yet to pass any meaningful legislative action that would prevent another mass shooting from happening. (Arming teachers does not count, as there is no proof such an action would actually stop a perpetrator from killing anyone.) Many people believe it has become a matter of “when,” not “if,” the next shooting will occur, and that belief is supported by the prevalence of active-shooter drills that ask students to become active participants in their own chances of survival.
And for activists? Living in that space of perceived inevitability is draining.
“The physical exhaustion, it comes and goes,” Tyah told MTV News.
What Carlitos and Tyah say they were feeling is sometimes called burnout. In 1994, Ayala M. Pines defined burnout in the Journal of Health and Human Resources Administration as “the end result of a process in which idealistic and highly committed individuals lose their spirit.” It’s a feeling shared by plenty of us (raise your hand if you’ve ever felt burnout from a job or a creative endeavor). But burnout is particularly rife among gun control activists, who start out inspired to make a change but see little to none of it despite their consistent work. Between seeing the effects of gun violence in their lives daily, and being confronted with continued disappointment, they become increasingly likely to question if their effort is worth it.
“I can say, especially last summer when [March For Our Lives was] on tour, I was like, ‘Man, do I really have to get out of this hotel room and get back on this bus?’” Tyah told MTV News. “But I knew that even though my body was tired, my mind was still moving a mile a minute because I knew I can’t let this happen to another person.”
So, they keep going. But how long does that resurgence of inspiration last? Gun violence has plagued the country — and especially marginalized communities — for decades. Now, people are worried that activist burnout may silence passionate voices that have the power to do demonstrable good.
Take Scarlett Lewis, the mother of a first grader who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. When March For Our Lives was making huge waves in the activist community and Parkland students were calling for change, she questioned if their efforts would lead anywhere. “They said that about Sandy Hook too, and that was five years ago,” she told the Independent, saying she’s disheartened with the anti-gun-violence movement as a whole.
While academic research on burnout in the activist community isn’t terribly common, one study out of the Journal of Human Rights Practice in 2015 showed that burnout is especially prevalent in social justice and human rights activists in part because “a culture of martyrdom” may discourage conversations about burnout and self-care among those activists and movements.
“These findings indicate the desperate need for greater attention to burnout and self-care across SJHR movements and activist organizations, not just for the sustainability of activists, but for the sustainability and success of movements for a more equitable and just world,” said Cher Weixia Chen, an Assistant Professor of International Studies at New Century College, George Mason University, and Paul C. Gorski, an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at the same school, in their paper Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes and Implications.
In April of this year, Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alaina, was among the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, wrote an op-ed for USA Today saying that many school shooting survivors who delve into activism immediately following the trauma of a mass shooting often lose out on receiving mental health help. (In the year since the Parkland shooting, at least two MSD students have died by suicide; while experts caution that multiple factors can contribute to a person’s ideations, other gun-violence survivors have also spoken out about their experiences.)
“While the sense of political urgency from students was understandable and in some ways admirable, it came at the cost of a focus on the health and healing — for the families of the victims, students, teachers and the community at large,” Petty wrote. “The politicization and media-frenzied response to the murders overwhelmed and eclipsed the real, personal needs of the survivors and their loved ones.”
But survivors-turned-activists say that sometimes being political is their own form of self-care.
“Something has to be done. Even though this isn’t the only solution, there’s no one size fits all, I know that I’m doing at least something,” Tyah says. “So I would go to Starbucks and drink two cups of coffee and be like ‘alright, let’s go.’ It was not the healthiest option, I will admit that, but I think that if I wasn’t doing something constructive then I’m not sure that I would be content with myself.”
“The physical exhaustion is always there and always around the corner even if it’s not on us right now,” she adds. “But I would say that mentally, we only want to work harder with every mass shooting that has happened after [Parkland].”
Winter BreeAnne, a gun violence prevention activist, told Teen Vogue in February that self-care is important to her because “the burnout can be very real.” In an effort to rejuvenate, she likes to “listen to music. I just value my alone time, whether it’s listening to music, getting a massage, or hanging out with my family.”
Tyah and Ryan take power naps — anything from 20 minutes to three hours — and sit down with friends to talk about “something that isn’t so heavy.”
“When it comes down to it, we’re just a bunch of friends who want to see a better world,” Ryan told MTV News. “That might take a while, and it’s okay to take a break. But we’re always going to be there for each other.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with their emotional health, head to halfofus.com for ways to get help.