Activist Trauma: Experiences, lessons learnt and conclusions (G8 2005)

After a month we had an internal weekend with the aims of debriefing and looking into group dynamics, and then evaluating our work in order to draw lessons for other people who might want to do this work.* The general consensus was that all of us enjoyed doing the work: it felt useful, appreciated and it is rewarding to feel that somebody actually feels better after talking to you.

Internal group dynamics are often complicated and this is especially true if people have been traumatised in the past, as all of the people in the working group had in some way or other. Summits are stressful situations at the best of times, they “trigger” people’s memories and remind them of previous traumatic situations. Additional factors were that a lot of the people did not really know each other beforehand and had very different personal and professional backgrounds and attitudes.

We concluded it would be better for a future trauma support group to really try and get to know each other beforehand and put effort into trust building and group bonding, since we need to be able to draw strength from the group rather than having to deal with internal conflict. It might have been a good idea to have an external supervisor on site who was independent of the group and could provide support for the supporters and group facilitation if necessary.

From the beginning we had made it clear amongst ourselves that we were offering emotional first aid and not therapy or deep counselling, since a campsite with police at the gate is not the right space for that, and therapy is a longer term project anyway. It turned out that it is not so easy to draw the line and opinions differ with different theoretical orientations. For any future work we think it would be important to have an indepth exploration of this topic beforehand and to agree some ground rules.

We found out that trauma support is very narrowly focused and naturally ended up also doing also other mental health work. It is difficult to draw the line and we recognise the need for broader self-organised mental health support in our movements, but at the same time due to limited resources we could only focus mainly on trauma. It also became clear that trauma work in itself during big mobilisations can’t be reduced to police brutality, because the repressive environment triggers all kinds of old trauma like childhood sexual abuse, rape and other previous experiences of brutality. It is important when doing emotional first aid to keep in mind that the person you are talking to might be carrying all kinds of old trauma with them. Also, different people need different things, so it is important to be prepared to be able to adapt to people’s specific needs and ways of coping. There is a definite need for general welfare work – cups of tea, massages, a quiet space and blankets can make an enormous difference, and also in terms of preventing burn out. The impact of lack of sleep for example turned out to be widely underestimated.
It felt useful to blur general welfare and trauma support, especially since a lot of people feel uneasy about going to some kind of “trauma tent” (it would, by the way, be interesting to look at what different reasons stop people from coming). It is a longer discussion how to make trauma support “mentally” accessible for as many people as possible. Co-operation with prisoner support and legal teams, co-operation with general welfare services, co-operation with medics, there are a lot of links where people can step in. In the end it is important to raise awareness about the topic and to make an effort to destigmatise it by integrating and normalising it, and making support easy to approach.

We feel we succeeded in putting the topic on the agenda. Hopefully it will become an intrinsic aspect of activist work, similar to legal and medical support. However it may take a long time to change the culture in our movements to a really supportive one, where we are not ashamed of what we feel and can be sure to be respected and supported in what we are going through. We hope this is a first step and one day it will be as normal to seek trauma support as going to the medics and that one day the stigma will be overcome – hopefully not only in terms of traumatic stress, but also in wider mental health.
*A more extensive account of lessons learnt is available on email request It is not quite clear yet in which ways this work will be continued. The Trauma working group was a group that was set up for the G8 and dissolved afterwards. However a few of us intend to continue this work, at least with work on the webpage and providing email/phone/personal support and information and maybe getting involved in other actions and mobilisations. If you are interested in this work, please get in touch.
Support Database on our homepage: If you can offer support in any way (counselling, healing, herbal remedies…), sign up at the Support Database on the homepage.

Reach out for help:

Don’t hesitate to contact us if you think it might be helpful for you, or just get in touch with somebody from the database.

Other useful websites:
Healing activist trauma in the States: http://healingtrauma.pscap.org/
email: activist_trauma@riseup.net