Counseling offered for political activists

The Community Counseling Center of Ashland is offering a group counseling session for political activists troubled by feelings of hopelessness, sadness and fear.

Nando Reynolds, clinical director for the center, said he has seen rising levels of anxiety and depression. The goal of the session is to teach activists how to manage their moods and take care of themselves physically and emotionally.

"A lot of people are pretty distressed. The despair and discouragement and anxiety are not helpful for people who are really trying to work for their values," he said.

The group support meeting, called "Maintaining Emotional Balance in Difficult Times," is from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 10, in the downstairs Gresham Room of the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd. The meeting is free, and no registration is required.

Some left-leaning political observers said they have seen a wide range of negative emotions since Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016. 

The Republican capture of the White House and Congress was a reversal from the celebratory mood on the left when Barack Obama won the presidency in November 2008. People on the right were the ones experiencing shock and frustration back then. Many rebounded by channeling their energy into the Tea Party movement, which champions conservative positions.

Political about-faces in American politics can leave activists reeling, no matter where they are on the political spectrum.

"It started, for obvious reasons, in November. There was a feeling like we had been hit by a truck," said Amanda Singh Bans, a member of the Racial Equity Coalition, which aims for a more inclusive Rogue Valley. "Overall morale has been pretty low. There was a feeling like, 'How could this happen with all the work we've been doing?' "

Bans said many people have now gotten over the initial shock, and political newcomers have emerged.

"We've been able to channel our frustration and draw support from each other. It has gotten people mobilized who had never been mobilized before. There has been a big turnout. It's not the same old crew," she said.

Another positive outcome has been efforts to create pools of progressive candidates to run for political office, Bans said.

Long-time activist Jason Houk works on a variety of causes, from affordable housing to worker rights. He said some activists are experiencing shock and depression.

He said many on the left were excited by the presidential run of Bernie Sanders, an independent senator representing Vermont, and other causes, including a fight against an oil pipeline project in North Dakota.

"A lot of people put a lot of energy into these campaigns, and they didn't turn out the way we wanted. People have been burned, and they're stepping back," Houk said.

But like Bans, Houk said the political upsets have drawn out new people.

"The younger folks are inspired and inspiring," he said.

Houk said the idea of holding a group counseling session for activists is interesting.

"I think it's something folks could use, but it might be hard to get them sold and get them in the room," he said.

Houk said political activists may not want to make the time commitment to attend the session. He said social justice advocates also tend to focus on their own projects, and there isn't enough collaboration among groups.

"Also, folks may not necessarily recognize signs of burnout. It might take an outside person to recognize that," he said.

Reynolds said the group counseling session being offered by the Community Counseling Center will offer tips on how to communicate and ways for activists to take care of themselves.

"It's possible to talk to someone about something that distresses us and end up feeling even more distressed. There are ways we can talk to each other and ways we can respond that lead to hope and optimism versus more despair," he said.

While many activists are driven by an inherently negative feeling that something is wrong with the world, they must preserve that feeling while also cultivating the positive belief that something can be done about a problem, Reynolds said.

Self-care strategies are critical for preventing burnout. People also need to learn to recognize and manage their moods, he said.

Self-care strategies include getting enough sleep, exercise and healthful food, finding ways to relax, managing stress, maintaining nourishing social ties and avoiding addictive behaviors, Reynolds said.

"Burnout teaches us it's possible to ignore all that stuff and collapse, or it's possible to pay attention to those things and thrive," he said. "People should also keep in mind the overall positive trajectory of history. The same skills apply no matter your political position. Life is going to be hard. It's helpful to learn self-management skills to weather the emotional storms of life."

Another tactic is to maintain control over consumption of negative news, Reynolds said.

"I know people who back in November, December and January were spending hours every day staying on top of political changes they were very distressed about. It drained their emotional energy," he said. "Everyone has to make their own decision about what's enough information and what's too much information. For most people, it's more nourishing to go on a walk in a park than to have more screen time."

Houk said one of his strategies to prevent burnout is to have something to look forward to, like a trip. He also advised seeking help from volunteers and friends, rather than trying to do everything. Looking at the big picture also helps.

"It's about the long game. You get some wins and you might get knocked down," he said.

Varying his activities also keeps him energized and engaged. Houk might spend one day lobbying for causes before the Oregon Legislature or talking to local elected representatives, and the next day directly helping vulnerable people through a community meals program or an overnight homeless shelter.

"You get a broad understanding of how relationships and communities work, from Salem down to the street," he said. "A lot of the work is the same, whether you're working with opponents or allies. People are all the same, whether they're in Salem or at the soup kitchen."

Like Houk and Bans, Hannah Sohl is seeing more people becoming politically engaged. She is fighting against climate change and a proposed natural gas pipeline that would be routed across Southern Oregon to an export facility on the coast.

"I think a lot of people are getting involved for the first time," Sohl said. "People are feeling like there's a lot to do and it never stops. The best way to combat that feeling is to actually do the work with great people. There's a lot of community building and people getting together for the first time."

She said the usefulness of a counseling session for activists would depend on the individual.

"I think it would probably be helpful to connect with people and share how to take care of themselves and learn tips for balancing activism and life," Sohl said. "It's really important for people to have balance. It's easy to get sucked up in the work and not take care of yourself."

Reynolds said putting beliefs into action is a good antidote to negative feelings, both in personal life and in the political realm.

"If you work to make change when something is upsetting you, that leads to self-empowerment. If you stick your head in the sand, that leads to a sense of dis-empowerment," he said.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or Follow her at

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