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Insights on Mental Health and Social Media Activism in Africa

A piece by Alundrah Sibanda – Cape Town, South Africa

Sparked by the death of George Floyd who asphyxiated after United States police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for 9 minutes, #BlackLivesMatter protests spread all over the US and other countries showed solidarity on the ground and online for the movement against police brutality, racism and structural inequality.

Closer to home, on the African continent, South Africans picketed against gender-based violence after the murder of Tshegofatso Pule and in Zimbabwe and Nigeria, medical personnel embarked on strikes against paltry wages and personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages respectively. These and various other political and social movements throughout the continent trended online and were not derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

The demographic category that I fall under, young black African women, is presented with a multitude of fights: ageism, prejudice, racism, sexism, gender-based violence, and corruption to name a few. Although contributing to the movements that confront this unequal state of affairs online can be an emotionally and mentally taxing exercise, there is limited discourse around the relationship between social media activism and mental health.

One aspect of social media activism is countering problematic narratives or contrary views expressed about your cause online. Examples range from countering #AllLivesMatter with #BlackLivesMatter to explaining to tone policers why they cannot dictate how disempowered groups express their outrage. Certain words, phrases or topics may trigger strong emotional responses in people including traumatic memories and anxiety. Activists often have personal ties to the causes that they lead, so they risk facing their emotional triggers in these social media interactions with those who may possess and express harmful ideologies.

Next, activist burnout occurs when activists feel the mental and physical pressure of the expectations to repeatedly act as the designated mouthpieces and agents of movements and causes. The symptoms of activist burnout are physical, psychological and emotional fatigue and hopelessness which may jeopardise the survival and success of the aims of movements.

In this COVID-19 reality where a lot of activism takes place online, social media is used to call out or “cancel” activists who do not immediately lend their voices and resources to causes. A conscious shift must occur to prioritise and emphasise on the importance of mental health as much as activists’ passion for the causes that they champion. This means that mental health breaks need to be regarded as adequate justifications for activists’ temporary silence or inaction to prevent burnout.

The highlight within these observations is that African youth are using the platforms and technology at their disposal to speak out about the issues that matter to them. Lengthy discussions surrounding the state of mental health systems in Africa and attitudes towards mental in Africa are necessary; they should encompass both building capacity and adaptation to the new reality that the pandemic has introduced in the African context. As African youth strive to create a more just and equitable society, mental services in Africa must improve to ensure that these courageous voices are guaranteed of a robust and relevant support system in case they encounter any of the issues that are outlined above.

Have a look at African based organisations promoting mental health awareness in Africa here: Friendship Bench, Olamma Cares Foundation, and amygloverpsychologist.

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