Keeping the fire going: Overcoming burnout as a student activist

UBC has a long history of student activism, starting long before the 2022 protests against food insecurity and tuition increases. Student activists dedicate endless energy in support of their causes — often at the expense of their academics, health and personal lives.

The sheer number of students involved in these movements and their highly-visible presence on campus make acknowledging the burnout they experience crucial.

Burnout, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, is “a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” It can lead to everything from a lack of motivation to physical symptoms such as decreased immunity and difficulty sleeping.

The Ubyssey spoke with several student activists about how they experience and deal with burnout.

There’s always more to fight for

Louis Liu, a fifth-year philosophy and economics student involved in Save Old Growth’s campaign pushing for a permanent halt to BC’s logging of old-growth forests, said that many movements are trying to do their best despite “severe resource and personnel limitations.”

Liu noted that activists often work against systems and belong to already-marginalized communities. These factors complicate activists’ ability to access resources such as counselling and legal support, making it more difficult for them to cope with the emotional toll of their work.

For student activists who balance their work alongside academics and other commitments, burnout can be especially pervasive.

Tetiana Poliakova, a PhD student in neuroscience, arrived in Canada under the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel, having evacuated Ukraine following the Russian invasion in February 2022. Since then, she has been protesting the invasion — educating others while correcting common stereotypes and misconceptions about the conflict.

For Poliakova, her activism holds very personal and high stakes; she described what she is fighting for as “people surviving or people dying, or people being severely traumatized.”

She explained that this urgency, as well as her loved ones’ continued presence in Ukraine, prevented her from feeling burnt out on a physical level. She continues to attend protests and educate others.

However, she experiences emotional burnout, largely due to re-traumatization occurring in conversations about the war. In particular, she struggled when people approached the subject as “an academic debate,” given the war’s direct and visceral effects on her.

Poliakova also described feelings of guilt and pressure, which she said may contribute to burnout for other activists as well.

“If we haven’t achieved the end goal then there’s still something to fight for,” said Poliakova. “And then you feel guilty for not doing that, even if you need to take a break.”

Such pressures are all too familiar to Liu. In April 2022, he was arrested while blocking the Grandview Highway as part of a Save Old Growth protest. He was charged with one count of mischief and one count of intimidation, the latter of which has since been dropped. Navigating the judicial process has limited his continued engagement in activism and prevented him from connecting with his support network.

Conversations with first- and second-year student activists who graduated high school and started university during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the draining impact of perpetual activism.

Brendan Olsen — a first year and activist who marshaled protesters at the December 2022 tuition freeze protest — said that working alone leads to burnout much faster. Trusting and delegating within a team allows activists to achieve a lot more, with more emotional stability and support.

Activism burnout is often coupled with educational burnout. Many experience burnout for a long period of time. Olsen recalled searching “Does burnout go away?” in grade 12 while feeling hopeless and without motivation, fearful of its long-term effects even then.

Since then, he has put more effort into prioritizing balance. Though he was forced to reconsider the value he placed on different aspects of his life, he has come to realize that time spent “exercising, making sure that I’m eating well and sleeping well, and time with family or friends, is not wasted time.”

Bodhi Patil, a second-year arts student in the B+MM program and a leader in ocean climate health activism through the BC Oceans Hub, said he felt strain when he didn’t know how to give himself time to stay healthy.

“I thought I had to go at the speed of light to reach my goals,” he said.

Helping yourself, helping others

Though Liu’s activism began with direct action, for many, direct action is a response to burnout in other forms of activism.

“People have been signing petitions, doing marches, emailing MPs for so long, and nothing works and they just feel the thing is pointless and they start to spiral,” he said.

In those cases, he said direct action is an approach that feels new and, perhaps, more immediately effective.

Anjali Chakravarti, a fifth-year psychology student, resonated with this sentiment.

She worked with UBC’s Residence Hall Association for three years before shifting to work with UBC’s CUPE 2278. The latter, she said, focuses on more actionable changes, such as the unionization of TAs. Chakravarti believes CUPE 2278’s continuous recruitment of students allows them to distribute tasks more equally and share the emotional burden of activist work.

“The best way I was able to get over the burnout is through teamwork and delegating tasks and through talking with other student activists,” said Chakravarti.

Poliakova also highlighted the role of compassion in preventing and alleviating burnout. She said “people have different levels of resources” that allow them to commit to varying degrees of activism. She noted the importance of taking breaks from activism, when necessary, in order to maintain a healthy balance.

“If you’re not able to take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to take care of others,” said Poliakova.

Students also noted that a constant stream of negative news pushed them into a spiral of burnout. Patil emphasized approaching everything with hope, and “being the light” in whatever situation he is in.

“Pessimism does not get anything done; it is perhaps the greatest defeat.”