Angela Bischoff and Tooker Gomberg were the model couple for grassroots organizers. They were passionate about their work to protect the wild and urban ecology from industrial and automotive pollution, rampant development and corporate interests. They advocated cleaner and more efficient transportation, social justice and equality. And they biked everywhere together, living the issues like many political activists do.
Unfortunately Gomberg—a fearless demonstrator who took on mayors, premiers and world political and corporate leaders alike—had experienced two severe depressions in the last several years of his life. Successive depressions increase the risk of suicide, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Around 2001, the couple lived in Toronto, where Bischoff worked for the Clean Air Partnership, a charity outgrowth of Toronto’s city council devoted to reducing air pollution. She had health benefits through the job, so Gomberg was able to undergo various treatments for his depression: massage, homeopathy, reflexology, psychotherapy.
The couple moved to Halifax in September 2003. The diverse coastal ecology and the quickening changes in the urban environment appealed to them. Halifax’s largely unplanned growth cried out for activism to check the momentum of development. But depression once again gripped Gomberg, stifling his desire to connect with other eco-activists in Halifax. Working for the TRAX program at the Ecology Action Centre, a small non-profit organization which is still trying to get a health plan, Bischoff had to find and pay for Gomberg’s treatment herself.
Tooker Gomberg took his own life on March 3, 2004. Over the past year, Bischoff has found strength by focusing on a new public campaign concerning anti-depressants, the very medication Gomberg had been prescribed at points during his illness.
“It’s kept me alive, literally. It’s given my life, and Tooker’s death, some meaning,” Bischoff explains from Toronto, where she was preparing to make a presentation to “a roomful of doctors.”
Bischoff left Halifax and the EAC to live rent-free in Edmonton with her mother. “Since I won’t be making any money on this campaign, I’ve got to cut my living expenses,” she says. “After Tooker’s passing I went back to work, and although it had previously been my life’s passion, work now seemed quite futile given my personal state of mind. I needed to focus my energies on what was most important to me—drugs, adverse reactions, mental health issues.”
Bischoff believes Gomberg’s adverse reaction to anti-depressants illustrates the scientific evidence that is starting to undermine popular faith in the drugs. She points to a meta-analysis published in February of some 90,000 patients: It shows that those on anti-depressant drugs were twice as likely to attempt suicide as those on sugar pills. So for every person helped by a drug another may be harmed.
Bischoff has also recognized the effect the activist work itself had on Gomberg’s mental health, taking a lesson for herself from the experience. “Tooker took on all the issues, and that lead to his depression. I’ve learned from that and am focusing my energies.”
Changing the world is a difficult occupattion. The optimism and passion that are an activist’s stock in trade are closely related to rejection, frustration and burnout. And the struggles of working for organizations that are chronically under-funded adds further stress to the mix. Some activists have woken up to the trying aspects of their careers and, perhaps not surprisingly, change is afoot. This Saturday, an activist workshop is happening in Halifax which, among other topics, will encourage participants to spend a little planning energy on themselves.
“How can we be really strategic with the campaigns that we choose and why do we choose them? What are they actually leading to? A victory in one campaign is great—it’s amazing—but we also need to know where it’s fitting in to bigger societal change,” says workshop presenter Lindsay Telfer. A former staffer with the Sierra Youth arm, Telfer now works as an independent consultant to Sierra Club and a variety of smaller grassroots organizations across the country. (The Strengthening the Roots workshop is in connection with the book tour for Sierra Club president Elizabeth May, whose newly revised and updated edition of At the Cutting Edge: Crisis in Canada’s Forests is out now.)
Regardless of whether you’re advocating an end to racism or a post-secondary tuition freeze, or both (as the case often is), Telfer wants to encourage conversation and storytelling among workshop attendees, so that each person goes away with a new approach to old concerns such as growing a volunteer base. But also on Telfer’s agenda is showing how “strategic planning” can work for organization and self.
“I do have a strategic plan for myself. I know what my priorities are. It’s then a lot easier for me to say no to things. The common thing I hear from other activists is that ‘I just have a hard time saying no.’ Every issue is important and there are so many when you look around the world today.”
And trying to do it all becomes overwhelming, Telfer says. “One of the things I find super-important—and I do get into this in the workshop—is to really appreciate the beauty that does exist in the world. Sometimes we get so caught up in the destruction. It’s hard.
“The friends I know who’ve gone through burnout, and the times I’ve felt demoralized, that’s the emotion that comes up for me… feeling like I’m not being effective and the world’s going down the tubes.”
Besides guiding workshops, Telfer advises grassroots organizers on fundraising, particularly tapping the private sector. She says nothing’s more stressful to an activist than getting shut down by government or a funding foundation because your cause is not of the moment.
“I realized how much our programs were dictated by funders,” Telfer says. “You know, you work on climate change now because that’s where funding is available. But what if that’s not in your strategic plan? So that drives the cycle, of always being on the treadmill.”
Telfer hopes to find new funding sources as a way to “break the desperation. A lot of non-profits work in that environment.”
New cash may also help bump up conventionally low wages and put health, dental and other benefits at the top of the to-do (or maybe that’s can-do) list for many small groups, adds Telfer, who woefully admits she has no coverage of her own and hasn’t been to the dentist in three years.
For her part, Angela Bischoff advocates for “more resources—government resources, not profit-motivated resources—put into our mental health care system, with an emphasis on alternatives to our bio-medical model of health care. Psychotherapy should be accessible to everyone and subsidized by our health care system, not just available to those who can afford it.”
Bischoff and Telfer’s efforts also draw attention to the pressures of work and the fact that so many—those low wage-earners, underemployed, chronically unemployed and independent workers—face the challenges of their job without a safety net below. Despite conspicuously rising wealth that has seemingly put a billionaire on every TV screen, a 2004 report from Statistics Canada shows the number of adult employees (those aged 25 to 64) earning low wages (under $10 an hour in 2001 dollars) has only dropped from 17 to 16 percent since 1981.
Michael Leiter heads the Centre for Organizational Research and Development at Acadia University. He received major federal funding to investigate causes, effects and preventions of job burnout. (If stress knocks you back on your heels momentarily, burnout occurs when you get knocked on your ass and have to crawl away from your job.)
Leiter says despite continuing efforts by supreme self-starters like Telfer and Bischoff, a broader, wholesale change in the way other players view the current state of affairs must take place.
“Openness to addressing mental health problems at work is progressing in fits and starts with some active retreats,” she says. “Employers and insurance providers are cautious about expanding options for illness complaints that are difficult to crisply define.”
But Leiter is optimistic that awareness toward understanding and new practices in the workplace is seeding in society. Maybe one day, ensuring mental health at work will be routine, not rare. And it will be thanks, in large part, to people like Angela Bischoff and Lindsay Telfer.
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