PTSD, activism and supporting Counselling for Social Change

At the beginning of 2012 I had a breakdown.  After years of frontline activism, harassment, betrayals and assaults, my body decided it could no longer cope.  I’d known I wasn’t coping very well, but I didn’t let myself stop, the work seemed too important.  In the end, it was the physical symptoms my body produced that forced me to stop; it didn’t give me any choice.

I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which didn’t come as a huge shock to anyone who knew me.  I knew I’d been through many traumatic experiences, and was suffering from many of the classic symptoms – flashbacks, anxiety, mood swings, nightmares, feeling constantly on edge.  A whole host of fun demons I constantly wrestled with leaving me incapacitated and incapable of dealing with day-to-day life.

However, the lack and services and support available for PTSD did come as a shock.  The only support readily available was for veterans. Given my PTSD was complex, covering many incidents over a number of years,  I wasn’t suitable for the available six sessions of mostly Cognitive Behavoiur Therapy based treatment on offer from NHS contracted services.   And yet, despite being a blubbering mess, I wasn’t severe enough to warrant treatment from the mental health trust.  I was put on a waiting list for psychological therapies – as far as I’m aware, I’m still on this waiting list today. 

Luckily, I had some compensation money from a wrongful arrest, and I used some of this to see a therapist with experience in trauma.  It’s been a long, slow, and at times incredibly frustrating journey, but despite a few bumps along the way, I’m now back at work, engaging with the world personally and politically.  I’m a long way from being back on the frontline, but I’m not hiding in bed with the covers pulled tight over my head.

It is notoriously difficult to find counsellors with an understanding of activism.  In the past, I’ve had psychotherapists who have tried to label my politics as “raging against the state” because of issues with my father.  I’ve heard of others who have been told their activism is a manifestation of self-harm, or their treatment has been deserved.  And whilst there are some wonderful NHS counsellors and therapists out there, these are not isolated stories, but a consistent narrative thread running across people I’ve spoken to over many years.

Access to effective treatment should never be about money, and both through mine and others experiences, we set up Counselling for Social Change (CSC) to start addressing these issues.  We wanted to support the already fantastic work being done by Activist Trauma Support, but also provide long term psychotherapeutic support to those not only suffering from PTSD, but dealing with other mental health problems as well as being involved in activism and campaigning.

Alongside seeing my therapist, one of the things which made an immense difference to my recovery, was living in a very beautiful part of West Cornwall.  Having access to the countryside, the sea, and for me, the vastness of the skies here was incredibly beneficial.  When I was well enough to leave the house, I went for long walks and bike rides, clearing my head, and embracing the panoramic views Cornwall is famous for.

We therefore decided CSC would offer three services – long term face-to-face counselling for social changers (activists, carers, volunteers, campaigners etc) in Cornwall, phone counselling for those outside of the county, and counselling retreats.  The retreats would be an opportunity to get away from everything, to have some “time out” in a beautiful environment, with full support and counselling.

Through lots of work, luck, and lovely people, this vision has nearly been realised.  We’ve got a fantastic team of dedicated counsellors with a real understanding of the issues involved.  We have an acre of land on a beautiful permaculture site, which in time, we hope to develop in to a productive forest garden.  We’ve received funding for some of our activist work, and are able to offer phone counselling and retreats for free.  I’ve also donated money from another compensation payment, and our shepherd’s hut should arrive on site in the next couple of weeks.

We are now crowdfunding to raise the last of the money we need for infrastructure to get the project up and running – for things such as the compost toilet and solar panel.  We aim to have the retreats running by August, and feel really positive and confident that this is a much needed project which will hopefully benefit many people.  We are really grateful to the people who have already donated, and hope more of you will help to get this project up and running as a resource for everyone.

Several years ago, I was one of the people involved in setting up Fitwatch.  One of the things I wrote in our initial call to action was  “If we were being systematically tortured by the State, we would protest. Mental abuse is just as important and it is vital to the strength of our actions that we challenge this.”  Good mental health is vital to us sustaining our work as activists and social changers, and we hope we can be a part of this.

 “Trauma work is part of resistance…We wonder why we, as activists, still think we can live through situations of severe police brutality without showing any emotional response.

And, in fact, we don’t. A lot of people drop out, disappear, stop being active, feel excluded because of their fear or because they are suffering from post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).”

Activist Trauma Support

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