Sunday, April 23, 2017

You are not alone: mental health in vegans and animal activists

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Mental anguish is common among vegans and animal rights activists, but there is help out there.

Like many vegans and animal activists, Sydneysider Lyndsay Doyle has experienced intense mental suffering relating to her veganism. Fighting pain from past toxic and abusive relationships, Lyndsay found herself chasing animal rights activism to undo the hurt. Searching for meaning and a sense of purpose, she only found more pain. Lyndsay’s past meant she gravitated towards toxic personality types within the movement. This, combined with the cruelty she was exposed to, only amplified her anger. She felt helpless, hopeless and worthless.

Over time, the anger Lyndsay felt became irreconcilable. One night, her fraught desperation culminated in a drastic, emotion-fuelled plan that finally changed the course of her activism, and life.

“My turning point was when I actually intended to do physical harm to someone who was harming animals,” Lyndsay says.

“My turning point was when I actually intended to do physical harm to someone who was harming animals.”

“I was no longer directing my anger towards them on an emotional level, but had decided to carry out physical harm to them. I felt desperate and was in a poor headspace. I wasn’t thinking straight, and the only way I felt I could stop some of the pain I was feeling was be hurting others. If I hadn’t stopped myself in that moment I probably would have killed someone.”

It’s intense moments like these which demonstrate the extreme suffering vegans can face. For Lyndsay, it was this level of intensity that finally made her realise something needed to change.

“In that moment, I truly believed that the only way to soothe my anger and to stop the pain I was feeling was to hurt others,” she says.

“That is the worst person I’ve been. Not just contemplating or wishing death upon others, but actually pursuing it. That was my wake up call, and I quickly realised that I didn’t want to be that kind of person, and that I needed to step away from animal rights until I got myself better.”

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Vegan Sydneysider Lyndsay Doyle says she used to feel numb, angry and hateful. Photo: Supplied.

Vegan for 20 years, Lyndsay’s journey through activism has always been complex. Ten years ago, after escaping a toxic and abusive relationship, Lyndsay thought she’d found solace in an animal rights group she joined.

“I was looking to be someone’s hero, to fill a void and feel purpose and worth on the planet after allowing myself to a victim of violent and aggressive circumstances. I used animal activism as a refuge, to be of use and value to someone else – the most abused and exploited of animals, farmed animals.”

Attending protests and breaking into farms to rescue animals, Lyndsay found that her anger only grew.

“I became numb, angry and hateful. My emotions pushed me to get involved with other activists who were also on the same emotional level as I was. I was unstable and wanted to take out my anger on the world.”

“No happiness or joy existed in me. I was holding onto a lot of guilt. I felt guilty if I smiled, if I laughed, if I had fun, I felt guilty if I did something that was unrelated to animal activism, felt guilty if I wasn’t fighting the cause 24/7 because animals never got a break. They were suffering every minute of the day, and therefore I had to suffer too.”

“I felt guilty if I smiled, if I laughed, if I had fun. The animals were suffering every minute of the day, and therefore I had to suffer too.”

Though Lyndsay’s experiences may be an extreme example of the distress animal activists face, she’s certainly not alone.

Jeremy Monforte, who also lives in Sydney, has been vegan for two years, and found that negative impacts on his mental health began almost as soon as he went vegan.

“My negative experiences started when I began to become an activist, which was virtually as soon as I went vegan,” says Jeremy.

“I was talking to anyone who would listen and I was online in every relevant forum. I found when I engaged people on the matter, I was met with apathy 99% of the time. I was full of empathy and couldn’t understand why otherwise good people didn’t want to discuss these issues properly. All it took for me was information, and here I was trying to share it and was met with nothing but indifference.”

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Jeremy Monforte is an animal activist from Sydney who began to experience negative emotions almost as soon as be became vegan. Photo: Supplied.

“It’s a very common experience,” says Sydney-based vegan psychologist Clare Mann about mental distress in vegans.

“Particularly in the early part of being an ethical vegan, when people become aware of the absolute absurdity, superiority and abuse at such a level, and then look around and see that people are all smiling and drinking a cup of coffee and they can’t see it, it’s almost like an existential crisis. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, I’m living in hell and no one else can see it.’ Then there’s that high state of alert and arousal and people wondering how they’re able to describe what they know and how they feel without seeming mad, or without people saying, ‘Oh, don’t be silly!’”

While there is virtually no psychological studies on the link between veganism and mental health issues, the issue is no-doubt heavily felt within the vegan community.

“I don’t think it so much explored in the literature,” says Mann.

“I know myself, I’ve written an on The Scavenger, which asks, ‘Should all vegans be issued with a mental health warning?’. I’ve got a feeling there will be more research being done in the future, because as I note in that article, GP’s are referring a lot more vegans to psychologists saying they have eating disorders, anxiety, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder, where in fact the doctor doesn’t understand that the vegan has become aware of information that in itself the whole world should be traumatised and feeling distressed by.”

Triggers: the recurring risk

Apart from the initial stage of realisation which prompts individuals to adopt a vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons, vegans also have to deal with the issue of triggers.

As defined by the University of Alberta’s Sexual Assault Centre, a trigger is something that sets off a flashback transporting a person back to the event of their original trauma. In the context of veganism, the original trauma would be whatever distressed the individual so much they were spurred to become vegan – or later experienced which reestablished this decision thereafter.

Understandably, triggers are very personal. Different things trigger different people, and a person’s triggers can be activated through one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.

While triggers can certainly be avoided, it is also common for them to be experienced unexpectedly.

“I am constantly triggered to different degrees,” says Jeremy. “People posts gory images without a warning and when it catches me off guard I have to close my eyes and settle myself.”

For Jeremy, his triggers relate to the animal cruelty he has seen through activism.

“Through some of my activism I have come face to face with horrendous cruelty,” he says.

“My face-to-face interaction with the duck shooters still haunt me today. Their sadism and apathy are burning reminders of the trials that lie before us.”

“For example, earlier this year I went to Victoria with some other volunteers from Animal Liberation to aid the Coalition Against Duck Shooting. I witnessed beautiful birds being shot out of the sky while the shooters laughed at their suffering and the reactions of protestors.  I had two birds die slowly and painfully in my arms; choking on their own blood. Their blood stained my torso and hands . My face-to-face interaction with the shooters still haunt me today. Their sadism and apathy are burning reminders of the trials that lie before us.”

For Lyndsay, the internet can also be full of triggers that take her back to her troubled activism days.

“The farms I used to break into and rescue animals from or take footage in included broiler farms, battery hen farms and piggeries. Every time I went into a farm I’d go numb. All emotion would drain out of me. I am always transported back to those times whenever I see a photo online.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lyndsay is most affected by images of piggeries.

“They transport me back quicker than any others,” she says.

“I look at the eyes of the pigs in the photos and I remember the moments I was inside the sheds, making eye contact with the pigs that were prisoners. Their floppy ears, their grunts, how quickly they devoured the apples we’d bring them as treats. I think about the individual animals I left behind. The ones I couldn’t rescue. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.”

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Lyndsay says she finds it difficult to forget those animals she couldn’t save. Photo: Veronica Rios. 

“It’s a post-traumatic response,” explains Clare Mann. “When people see new things, such as images online, it triggers an unresolved traumatic response and it exacerbates the problem. People become more traumatised, they see the enormity of the problem, and they feel helpless and hopeless and then get angry and distressed. These are all the normal reactions in a post-traumatic response.”

Seeking help and support

Even within the general population, the taboo around mental health is huge. For vegans, the topic becomes further complicated. From feeling alienated and misunderstood to being completely trivialised and ignored, vegans can come up against huge challenges, even within professional counselling situations.

“It’s a double, or even triple trauma in many ways,” says Mann.

“Vegans are obviously distressed and then they try and explain to a psychologist what’s happened, and the psychologist says, ‘Gosh, that must be really difficult, I understand or can imagine what it’s like.’ And the person thinks, ‘Well if you really understood you’d become a vegan. If you didn’t, there’s no way you can actually understand me because if you do then you’re a sociopath and I’m sitting in front of you and how can I work with you?’

“So there’s that awful trauma, and then the poor individual talks to the psychologist and the psychologist, doing their job, as they would in more general terms, might talk about resistance in the individual. Or they’ll say the individual is catastrophising, but that’s because the psychologist haven’t really “got” this issue of speciesism.”

“It is a huge challenge,” says Mann.

“I have a great desire for there to be a lot more vegan psychologists and counsellors around to truly use psychological principles in order to help people through the grief process and the trauma process. Vegan psychologists can truly be a telling witness in being alongside them, guiding them and saying, ‘I’m in the fire with you, but we need to separate my issues from yours.’“

While it’s difficult to find a vegan psychologist or counsellor, Mann says it’s important mental health professionals don’t minimise or undermine vegans’ trauma.

“This trauma is very real, and it’s important for individuals to know their reaction is not out of proportion with the threat.”

“This trauma is very real, and it’s important for individuals to know their reaction is not out of proportion with the threat, which a lot of people might criticise them for.”

As the vegan movement grows, so too does the number of support networks available to individuals, even outside the realm of counselling. From forums and activist burnout workshops to niche online groups and vegan meet-ups, there are growing options for those that need support.

“Getting people around you is very important,” says Mann. “Getting support, debriefing, talking to other people, ensuring you’ don’t become a people-hater. People can laugh at this, but it’s true.”

But even interaction with other vegans and activists can provoke mental anguish in individuals. Differences in opinions and preferred activism techniques can create divide, compounding vegans’ already heightened sense of alienation and frustration.

“I came across organisations for animals and wanted to help,” Jeremy says.

“But after a while I became impatient with their approach. I felt like they were afraid to step on anyone’s toes and were even hesitant to say the word vegan. It was during this time I found Animal Liberation NSW – A group that stands for something and isn’t afraid to say what is necessary; no matter the potential adversity. I became a member and began going to their monthly meetings which lead to volunteering for various events including stalls, protests, petitioning, and various other direct action activities.”

“It’s about dealing with the eternal loneliness of the vegan journey, and the pain of living in a non-vegan world.”

Finding like-minded company and a safe place to simply be is an important element when it comes to supporting an individuals’ mental health. Support groups, relevant networks and events also help to tackle individuals’ feelings of alienation, helplessness and hopelessness.

“The last thing we need in an activist, of course, is hopelessness,” says Mann. “And that’s something I work very hard on, to help people overcome.”

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Vegan psychologist Clare Mann. Photo: Supplied.

Mann says there are two aspects to overcoming the sense of hopelessness many vegans will periodically encounter.

“Firstly, it’s about dealing with the eternal loneliness of the vegan journey, and the pain of living in a non-vegan world,” she says.

“So how do you manage your own emotions, reduce your stress and anxiety and not live in a constant state of reaction and fight-or-flight? There’s all sorts of strategies and techniques we can do to overcome that and bring people to a state of self-management.”

The second aspect, Mann says, is one of communication.

“Effective communication helps reduce trauma tremendously, so this is really about, ‘How do I become proficient at having the conversations that matter?’”

“So there’s the self-management, and then there’s becoming empowered so that you come away feeling you can be the best voice for a cause, and that we’re part of this growing world movement of social change.”

The path forward

Ten years on from that fateful night near the piggery, Lyndsay says she is in a much better headspace both emotionally and spiritually.

“My mental health these days is in a wonderful place, thanks to getting in touch with my spirituality. All I feel is sorrow for that young girl who was so filled with rage and helplessness,” she says.

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These days, Lyndsay is in a much better headspace. Photo: Supplied.

Lyndsay admits she’s still reluctant to get involved with much animal activism, especially activities that she participated in when she was younger.

“It’s still a reminder of who I was,” she says. “And there’s a certain level of concern I have that it’ll bring back something from the past in me. But I am trying to make baby steps in the hopes that I won’t be sucked back into that headspace – it’s a fear of mine, rather than a reality, but something I need to work through constantly.”

Like many vegans and activists, Lyndsay and Jeremy experience fluctuations in how they reconcile their feelings about veganism.

“For better or worse, what is happening in the animal rights movement shapes my mental health.”

“For better or worse, what is happening in the animal rights movement shapes my mental health,” says Jeremy. “Some days I am ecstatic and excited for what’s to come. And on others, I am frustrated and angry at what is happening in the world.”

Happily, for Lyndsay, today’s world of activism is much different from the one she left ten years ago.

“I had avoided anything vegan and animal rights related for ten years, until finally one day I decided that I wanted more vegans in my life. Then I found this amazing vegan community that had such a fantastic range of people, so different to the ones I was used to when I first joined the movement. I’ve made some amazingly intelligent, creative, funny and wonderful new friends and have a much better outlook on the vegan community.”

Lyndsay has also found that her experiences with non-vegans are now also completely different.

“There isn’t ridicule, there isn’t mockery or belittling or abuse or assault,” she says.

“Instead there is curiosity and a willingness to listen and learn. I believe that comes down to a few factors including how quickly the vegan movement has grown and how mainstream it’s becoming, but I also believe that I’m a different person with a different kind of energy. Nobody wanted to listen to me back then, and I was so angry and negative, and now they do. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

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Lyndsay says its important to focus on the positive things. Photo: Veronica Rios.

Similarly, Jeremy also has a very inward-looking philosophy that keeps him grounded against negativity.

“To combat those feelings I remind myself that I am trying my best and that I am only in control my own actions,” he says.  “I try to learn as much as I can to become the best activist I can.”

Jeremy also volunteers for Hart Acres Animal Haven, an animal sanctuary in New South Wales, Australia, and says visiting is vital to his mental health.

“I visit when I can and immerse myself with animals who are being treated the way they deserve too. I always leave there with a renewed fire in gut,” he says.

“I breathe. I laugh. I meditate. I remind myself that everything is going to be okay. We’re all going to be vegan one day.”

“I am also surrounded by people who are like minded and who are passionate activists. Over half of my immediate family are now vegan, my fiancé is vegan and all my closest friends are too.”

As well as focusing on finding time and positive energy for her herself, Lyndsay too reminds herself of who has changed and the things that continue to change in the world.

“I breathe. I laugh. I meditate. I remind myself that everything is going to be okay. We’re all going to be vegan one day, some will just take a little longer than others. But the world is changing, it’s moving towards veganism, it’s only a matter of time. Veganism is inevitable, it’s the new black.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues, please seek professional help or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

Clare Mann, vegan psychologist, sees clients face-to-face in Sydney CBD or via Skype/FaceTime. Clare sees vegan clients at reduced rates. For a 20 min free phone consultation to discuss options and Medicare rebates, contact her at http://veganpsychologist.com.

Access Clare’s free audio program ‘Overcoming Stress and Anxiety’ at http://claremann.com/endstress.

High Anxiety 2 by sunofgroucho is licensed under CC BY 2.0