Publication Date


Document Type

Masters Thesis


School for Social Work


Political activists-Psychology, Psychotherapy patients-Political activity, Human rights workers-Psychology, Help-seeking behavior, Activism, Activists, Social movements, Psychotherapy, Activist mental health, Activist burnout, Activist identity development, Eating disorders, Clinical social work, Social justice, Exploratory


This exploratory study aimed to identify reasons why people who identify as activists seek psychotherapy. The literature on social movements supports the claim that activists are highly motivated individuals who seek to create meaning through work to promote social change, and as a result are exposed to a complex array of social forces that are institutional and interpersonal. As a collective social behavior, involvement in social movements allows activists to develop strong relationships with others while also becoming exposed to the risks of conflict and disapproval of others. Given that these relational factors and the nature of their organizing work can create a variety of stressors for activists, the researcher devised research questions that sought to explore whether there are common factors, themes, or presenting problems when accessing a therapist. The researcher presents findings from twelve semi-structured interviews with people who self-identify as activists and have participated in a social movement organization and psychotherapy within the last two years. The study's findings illustrate the highly meaningful nature of developing an activist identity for participants; conscientious and perfectionistic personality traits among participants; a variety of healthful and conflictual interpersonal dynamics participants have experienced through their work; the importance of hard work; the prevalence of eating disorders, compulsive behaviors, and experiential avoidance when seeking treatment. A broad theme of participants stretching their resources so thin such that when a confounding problem arises in their lives, psychotherapy functions as a useful resource; and that activism is an important topic in therapy, though it is not discussed with the same level of depth with therapists as much as it is within friend networks. This study's findings have the potential to promote development of interventions to treat symptoms seen in activists, education of psychotherapists on what issues are salient to activists when seeking treatment, and empowerment of activists in their work to promote social justice and social change. To promote the capacity of activists aligns with social work values that promote empowerment and social justice. As such, the study indicates the importance of clinical social workers and therapists to validate and affirm the meaning of activism in their clients' lives.




vi, 158 pages : color illustrations. Thesis (M.S.W.)-Smith College School for Social Work, 2014. Includes bibliographical references (pages 133-139)