By Sophie Sandberg
“Write depression personal essay.” This task sits on my to-do list for months on end as a cruel joke. Depression makes it notoriously difficult to motivate and complete tasks.
I have the pleasure of loving what I do. I co-lead Chalk Back, a global movement that fights gender-based street harassment with street art and social media. What began as an Instagram account I created at age 19, Catcalls of NYC, evolved into a full-time job and my life’s work.
Chalk Back allows me and others to feel like we are touching the lives of survivors every day. But finding purpose and producing meaningful work does not necessarily shield you from depression. In fact, fighting and witnessing injustice can take a serious toll on activists’ mental health.
In May 2020, things shifted for me. My mom was finally recovering after battling COVID-19 for months and work was picking up. But I began to struggle. Rather than feeling excited and joyful about my work, and the impact we were making around the world, I felt apathetic. A disturbing refrain played in my head: “Why do anything, when I could not?”
Each task — each call, email, social media post — brought an insurmountable surge of anxiety. Even getting out of bed was a challenge. People congratulated me on my professional accomplishments, but I couldn’t take pride in them myself. All I wanted to do was rest. But when I tried to take a break, a voice in my head told me I couldn’t rest because I hadn’t done enough.
I didn’t yet realize that this was depression.
At my most depressed, I stopped enjoying food. I lost 10 pounds. I felt an overwhelming sense of numbness — I couldn’t cry when I was sad. I was empty. When I would pet my cat, I felt indifference rather than love (those who know me understand just how out-of-character that is). When I saw myself smiling in photos, I felt like a fake. I didn’t recognize the person in the picture.
My co-leader encouraged me to write about my mental health struggles. I had just started an antidepressant. “I’ll start when the meds kick in,” I joked.
Activism is a tenuous balancing act: it’s joyful and heavy. In the work that we do for Chalk Back, we listen to traumatic stories every day and see the fatal impact of patriarchy — a painful experience that harms our mental health. But this trauma is often eased by the satisfaction of seeing the concrete impact we have. Mental illness, however, can throw that balance out of whack.
Depression makes it difficult to practice self-care and to do our work effectively. The hallmarks of the condition — lack of motivation, feeling low and worthless — undermine the strengths needed to take action and make real change while finding a healthy balance attending to our own needs. This is a cycle that fuels feelings of failure; there is always more to do, so there is no time to take breaks or focus on self-care. I have had countless conversations with activists whose anxiety and depression “intrude on their work.” They often apologize for not working hard enough because they are struggling with their mental health.
As a leader in the activism space, I struggled to ask for support. I didn’t want anyone to see me as a less capable leader (the way I saw myself during this time).
Compounding these stresses, as activists, we also have to worry for our safety. We face online harassment, threats, stalking and other hateful behavior because of what we do. As we advocate for others, we are forced to defend ourselves. And unfortunately, the resources for online activists’ safety are limited, and it can be challenging to find support.
Chalk Back is a survivor-led movement, created to share stories of street harassment to grow solidarity and build community. I’ve learned that sharing mental health struggles can do that, too. Depression, like street harassment, is a subject that requires more awareness to shed the widespread stigma.
People facing depression may not speak up about it or may not verbalize their feelings — and they may not have access to resources. And just like street harassment, without sharing these first-hand experiences, depression can be downplayed with dangerous consequences. So now, I share my mental health journey to encourage others, especially young activists, to share their experiences, too.
This past February, a psychiatrist diagnosed me with a major depressive episode and prescribed Lexapro. Within three weeks of taking the medicine, I felt remarkably better. The acute anxiety I felt with every task dissipated, and with it, the extreme lack of motivation lessened.
As tasks felt more manageable, I felt more motivated, and I celebrated accomplishments. I realized that certain feelings, thoughts and behaviors were symptoms of depression rather than character flaws. They were not a part of me, they were a treatable chemical imbalance.
Depression, like street harassment, is not a uniform experience for anyone facing it. However, in my experience, when we share our unique stories and come together as a community, we create powerful conversations and cultural change.
Sophie Sandberg is an activist and street artist committed to combating gender-based violence. She is the founder of the popular initiative Catcalls of NYC, which raises awareness about street harassment using colorful chalk art. She co-leads Chalk Back, a global movement against street harassment inspired by Catcalls of NYC.
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