The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
Keep Protesting Trump. It's Good For You.
The United States has experienced a seismic political shift in the past few months. This hasn’t been just in D.C. offices, but in living rooms, campuses, and street corners across the country, which have seen an outpouring of activism that is quick-moving, grassroots, and progressive. As Randy Block, who leads an intergenerational activist group called the Gray Panthers of Metro Detroit, told me, “I’ve never seen so much to desire to become active for justice since the 1960s, and perhaps it’s even more urgent now than then.”
From New York to New Orleans, Seattle to Cincinnati, citizens are getting organized. They’re demonstrating in the streets, writing petitions, coordinating mass phone calls, and getting very familiar with their members of Congress. And all of this civic participation might carry with it some healthy side effects.
Abundant research shows that volunteering as a whole has associated health benefits, both physical and mental. In U.S. states with higher rates of volunteering, residents have greater longevity and fewer cases of heart disease. Another study of American adults aged 55+ reported that people who volunteered with at least two organizations had a 44% lower mortality risk over five years than non-volunteers. In both studies, variables like demographics and pre-existing health were taken into account.
There’s less scholarship specifically on activism and health, but the research that does exist is positive. For instance, one wonderfully titled study asks, “Is “Raging” Good for Health?” Researchers drew on stories of the Raging Grannies, an activist group of women older than 50 who sing and wear flamboyant clothing while demonstrating to draw further attention to their causes, such as combating climate change.
The members’ stories showed that involvement in advocacy led to an enhanced “ethic of self-care,” sense of purpose, and depth of social connections -- all of which have been linked to healthy aging.
Let’s put this in context. “We all know that addressing physical health — even just through a healthy diet and exercise, for instance — often requires maintaining challenging habits, pooling resources, and imagining long-term outcomes,” said Celina Su, an activist–academic who teaches urban studies at City University of New York. “These are practices that activism helps to hone.”
Alicia Raimundo, a 27-year-old mental health consultant in Toronto, Canada, is one of many young people around the world who has recently gotten involved in anti-Trump activism. Since the U.S. presidential election, she’s been contributing money and sharing advocacy actions on social media, including keeping her own elected leaders in check. “Because the U.S. is in a state of turmoil, Canada looks amazing in comparison,” she said. “Our leaders have gotten kind of cocky and have gone back on promises, like election reform.”
Raimundo believes her activism has benefited her health. “Being able to provide support to other people, like Muslims terrified in the U.S. right now, helps improve my resolve and mental health by giving me more reasons to keep fighting,” she said.
Inaddition to helping young people like Raimundo, advocacy reduces the risk of dementia and other cognitive impairments among the elderly. Frank Infurna, who leads the Healthy Aging and Life Events Lab at Arizona State University, has found that volunteering (including civic participation) cushions against cognitive decline in two ways: “It’s the social activity of being amongst others, and also the stimulation that comes [from the activity].”
Infurna co-authored a recently published paper that examined 14 years’ worth of data on health and volunteering. They found that exercise didn’t significantly reduce the likelihood of cognitive impairment, but volunteering did. Those who never volunteered during the 14-year period were more than twice as likely to be cognitively impaired as those who volunteered at least three times.
Richard Kyle researches both health care and activism at the University of Stirling in Scotland, including mental health activists in Manchester, England and Auckland, New Zealand. He summarized one takeaway from the autobiographical narratives he and his colleagues collected for this work: “Activism helped to anchor individuals to their past self — and the passions and beliefs forged in earlier life — to enable them to make decisions in the present.”
“One man in his mid-40s,” Kyle continued, “discussed how his involvement in the anti-psychiatry movement led him to found a voluntary sector organization…, which helped him to deal with his own mental health issues.”
Block has had similar experiences while at the Gray Panthers.
“Public protest is a good antidote to the sense of anxiety and depression that comes when our values, our services and our laws that protect people are under constant attack…. Activism, for people like me, provides meaning for living.”
When it comes to the optimal frequency of volunteering and other community engagement, Infurna promotes moderation. He referred to an inverted U relationship: people who almost never volunteer, as well as people who volunteer excessively, are likely to see reduced health benefits. There’s no magic number. Some recommend 40 hours per year, others 100 per year. Individual mileage may vary.
It’s also important not to ignore the very real risks to health and life associated with activism. As Su said, even in “less extreme contexts, activism sometimes still comes with the risk of violent responses by police or countermovement groups.”
But this is hard to avoid as, in Su’s words, “some of the efficacy of activism and civic engagement comes from its risks. After all, collective demonstrations of sacrifice…tend to, in the long run, bring about more social change.” This doesn’t mean, however, that people should necessarily sacrifice their own health for a cause. As we’ve seen recently, different forms of activism (or for some, no activism at all) are appropriate for people whose physical, mental, or other needs preclude direct action.
The activists Su studies are especially dedicated. But civic engagement doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. From Infurna’s research on longitudinal volunteering data, “Probably one of the biggest take-home messages is that it’s not too late to start.” Even people who get involved in advocacy irregularly or after a long period of inactivity are likely to derive some health benefits.
So how can we encourage civic engagement as a low-cost, high-benefit, win-win health measure? One way would be for local government to invite more democratic involvement. For instance, participatory budgeting, which has spread from Brazil to places around the world, puts power into ordinary residents’ hands to allocate local funds. Another would be for healthcare providers could encourage their patients to get involved in their communities.
This is already happening in the U.K, in the form of social prescribing. Health care professionals recommend community-based activities to address the social as well as physical aspects of their patients’ health. One social prescription might be to join a local campaign group; another to get involved in community time banks to swap skills related to advocacy. While more evidence is needed, existing research has shown the power of social prescribing programs to reduce unnecessary medical prescriptions and make better use of healthcare providers’ time.
For Raimundo, activism has allowed her to channel her energy into a productive direction. She’s built up advocacy networks to whom she can turn when she’s feeling mentally unwell. More generally, the sense of purpose she’s found has “helped [her] turn really negative experiences into positives.” Turning negatives into positives is likely to be a theme for many new, or newly invigorated, activists.