Youth Activists’ struggle with mental health in the ongoing protests in Thailand

The ongoing protests in Thailand are having a negative impact on the mental health of young activists as many protesters face legal charges for the work they are doing. For those struggling with mental health issues, there is very little assistance being provided to them.

A small stuffed panda is left on the street under the Siam BTS Station in a pool of water from the water cannon, which also hit many protesters. 

Kay, a young student activist, initially attended every protest and rally. But since the beginning of October, she has been taking a break from both attending the protests and posting about it on social media because her mental health was deteriorating.

Chonticha Jaeng-rew, a political activist, first addressed the issue of mental health among activists back in 2014. Her reason for bringing attention to the topic was because of her own battle with mental health issues. She received many death threats and was harassed both online and offline. After being arrested in 2015, she said she suffered from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

“Right now it’s getting better, but I still have problems with migraine. We work too hard right now, we don’t have time to sleep, we don’t have time for ourselves, we don’t have time for our family,” said Chonticha.

In Thailand, the social stigma connected to admitting mental health problems and attitudes toward meddling in political issues have made it hard for pro-democracy protesters to seek help on mental health issues. These factors inevitably lead to mental health problems for people who are merely exercising their legal right to freedom of expression.

Shortage of welfare, lack of understanding

Backyard Politics is a group that works with a number of women and feminist organizations to create more interconnected movements. This group strives to challenge gender biases and shed light on forms of violence that are not immediately recognized. They provide a safe space for individuals to confront these biases and offer them different forms of help and therapy.

Sattara Hattirat, from the organization Backyard Politics, explained that there is this misconception that mental illness is not real and that people can snap out of it at any time, but this is not true. This belief can make people feel bad about themselves and can have serious consequences for a person’s mental health.

“I think largely people stigmatize mental health conditions. And they would perceive people who have mental health conditions as being crazy or mad,” said Sattara.

Sattara said that many activists suffer from mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. When they go to the doctor to get help, they will usually test out a number of drugs on them before finding a suitable one. It is a painful, long and costly process to go through when the chances of getting better are not always guaranteed.

It is very difficult for activists to find doctors who can understand the work that they do, who are safe and who would not expose them.

A protester passing on umbrella during the protest on 18 October.

“Those who do seek help sometimes get told by the doctors that they should not care so much about social change, for example, which doesn’t work for activists,” said Sattara.

Backyard Politics works together with a list of therapists or healers. They would also welcome doctors but they have been unable to find any who fit the requirements needed to help activists. Their three requirements include; doctors who understand activists’ work, who are gender sensitive and who are aware of social problems and marginalized groups.

Therapists that work in this organization incorporate different kinds of approaches like art therapy, bio therapy, sound healing and counselling. They also work with visuals or pictures, hold workshops and training with groups of activists so that they can design their own well-being strategy and their own self-care techniques.

Sattara explains that many activists are not aware that working on social problems and being front-line defenders requires more mental health and physical care than people who are not in this line of work.

The 2008 Mental Health Act offers guidelines of how mental health patients should be treated. Under the Act, mental health is defined as any symptom of mental disorder expressed through behaviour, mood, thought, memory, intelligence, neuro-perception or perception of time, place or person, including any symptom of mental disorder resulting from alcohol or other psychotropic substances.

The Act states what the patients’ rights are, the kind of treatment and rehabilitation they should receive and what action government officials and professionals need to take in the case where patients pose a threat to the people around them.

However, the 2015 Thailand Health System Review revealed that “the National Policy does not include service strategy development or patients’ human rights protection.” Access to mental health facilities is uneven across the country with people living in cities getting more benefits compared to people living in rural areas.

There are no day-care treatment facilities or residential facilities in Thailand that can help people learn self-care methods and techniques as the majority of funds are directed to mental hospitals.

In schools, education about mental health is being promoted in order to create more awareness and to support children and adolescents with mental health issues. However, most of the time this psychological support is not being provided by professionals but by general teachers.

As kids fall prey to parents, both fall preys to culture

Recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Kay said that the protests further exacerbated her mental health issues. She said that her parents are trying their best to understand her mental health issues but they do not completely agree with what the doctors say.

“To some extent, they’re supportive but I don’t think they’re aware that the way they’re trying to support me sometimes makes my moods even worse,” said Kay.

Many parents are not comfortable with their children participating in the protests. Those whose children are leading actors in the protests are especially hesitant in supporting them and their cause. Being aware of this, Sattara explained that both the parents and the children feel the pressure from Thai culture itself.

Parents feel pressure to protect the family’s dignity because they are the ones who society blames when their children are not obedient. For the children, the pressure stems from the idea that the children should show gratitude towards their parents.

“Youth activists who come out to voice out against the social structure and the government, they are at odds with what is really powerful and what can protect them at this moment is the family,” said Sattara.

There are also many superstitions attached to mental health. A lot of people believe that it is one’s own karma that leads to mental health issues, explaining that their current mental state results from having committed unforgivable acts in their past lives. This kind of thinking has limited people’s understanding of mental health and has prevented them from accepting someone with mental health issues.

Sattara added that youths who are at the victims of any kind of violence involving their families need to understand that it is never the children’s fault. She said that people who perpetrate violence always have the choice of not committing violence in the first place. When parents or family members are violent towards their children, they are not taking the role of protectors or parents.

When asked how they deal with the stress they are going through, Kay explained that she is trying to balance her sleeping schedule, spending more time with her family and not so much time on social media. She adds that she has been taking medication for her bipolar disorder which does help with her mood swings.

When asked how she copes with these kinds of situations, Chonticha said it is really hard to deal with such incidents, especially when activists like her are simultaneously dealing with a conflict situation. The main thing she does is focus on her work, her beliefs, her values and try to move on.

She advises young activists who are struggling with their mental health to take a break, but to also keep reminding themselves all the time that what they are doing is important for the Thai people.

“Don’t try to look down on yourself, don’t try to look down on your work or your movement. If you are tired, just take a break and you can come back again. And come back when you are ready,” said Chonticha.

Impact of social media on activists’ mental health

Another concern involves social media, according to Sattara, in the constant intake of news from different social media platforms. This can become overwhelming and exhausting and this exhaustion can affect people’s mental health in different ways.

A part of 17 October protest recorded via a smartphone.

Even when people do not attend the protests, they watch and absorb the news online and this can also have significant effects on their mental health. Sattara said that  people who witness these protests or learn about them can also suffer from what is called second-hand violence.

Pin, an MUIC student, said she has not been attending the protests but instead she has been keeping up with the news on social media every day. The impact of seeing her friends getting arrested has caused her stress and several breakdowns. It has also affected her physically with a condition called TMD (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder) which is affected by stress.

Pin adds that she has been staying away from social media for a while now because some of the news and comments about the protests and her friends are very upsetting.

Kay said that she has been off social media as well, especially Twitter, because of the content that is being tweeted and spread around the internet regarding the protests. She explained that she reacts too personally to the messages but she is trying not to get affected by them too much.

Kay also said that seeing someone related to her getting arrested is one of the main challenges she has been facing. It also affects her deeply when she sees them being talked about in the media.

Another concern of online activism is the cyber bullying that activists receive. According to Chonticha, cyber bullying has a huge effect on activists, particularly on female human rights activists. She gave an example of a pro-royalist who sent a naked photo of himself to her as a form of sexual harassment.

Currently, there are no concrete laws in Thailand to tackle cyberbullying directly. However, different sectors have come together to fight cyberbullying and harassment. The DQ Institute has developed a programme called Digital Intelligence (DQ) designed to help teachers and parents prepare young children to become digital citizens. These skills would include exercising digital intelligence and critical thinking when engaged online. 

AIS (Advanced Info Service), one of Thailand’s mobile phone operators, has collaborated with the DQ Institute to introduce an 8-hour e-learning course. The course aims to help parents and teachers teach children to interact safely and productively on digital platforms. Young children will be educated on eight topics including Cyberbullying Management, Digital Footprint and Critical Thinking.

Sattara explained that when people rarely debate online and only engage in hostile arguments, it can be harmful for activists who try to create online conversations to educate others.

Bamaejuri is a Prachatai English intern from Mahidol University International College (MUIC)