When the Stakes are High – Caring for Your Mental Health When Debating Things That Matter

*Please note, the following scenarios are based on my imagination of what someone with high stakes in the issues portrayed might feel. They are created based on conversations, relationships and readings about, and with, people in these types of situations. None are intended to represent any specific person, or situation, or to imply that someone in these types of situations would feel exactly the way the following characters are portrayed.

*Jonah was not attending his sister’s wedding. She had begged him to come, asking him to talk to his parents one more time, to try and fix things with them, but he was unwilling to face his parents again, after what they’d said during Christmas dinner about “some people using identity to avoid responsibility and to keep attention on themselves.” Jonah loved his sister and would love to be at her wedding, but it was not just this comment that had led to his decision. Before coming out to his parents as male, Jonah had had many debates with them about the validity of sexual and gender identities. His parents would often end the discussion by saying, “let’s just agree to disagree.” By attending the wedding, Jonah would be “instantly out” to a very large group of people (about 200) whose beliefs about trans people were, as of yet, unknown. At this point, he could only be sure of two people’s support at this event, and they would be busy getting married. Jonah didn’t want their day spoiled by conflict and wasn’t willing to internalize it all, again, as he had throughout his childhood and teen years. He did not think anyone would harm him physically  but he could not be 100% sure. He had some cousins who had, in the past, joked about beating up ‘fags.’ Jonah had no idea how they would respond to him. Jonah had enough to deal with on a day to day basis, facing reactions from friends and acquaintances; from strangers, both on line and in reality; and from media coverage, all of  whom had an opinion about gender identity …Jonah’s identity. He needed to take care of himself now. He would have his sister and her husband over after the honeymoon for dinner and cake at his place. He hoped his sister would understand. He had nothing left to say to his parents.


*Janine’s sister had been missing for three years before they’d found her body. Janine was 12 at that time. That was 14 years ago. No one had ever been arrested. Janine remembers her sister at the powwows, she was so beautiful in her skirt, such a powerful dancer. Janine’s grandmother once told Janine that it used to be illegal for their people to wear their traditional clothes and to have their ceremonies. When her sister disappeared, Janine would go into the closet and pull out her sisters,’ powwow skirt, holding it to her face, asking her sister where she was and when she was coming home. Janine looks at her oldest daughter and sees her sister’s smile in her daughter’s face. Janine wonders how many cousins her children would have now if her sister had been alive. 

This year, for Halloween, Janine’s youngest, now 3 years old, wants to be a princess. They won’t be out trick or treating for long. It’s cold and the little one doesn’t need that much candy. Just around a couple of blocks. 

As they turn the last block to head home, bag full of chips, chocolate bars and candy, Janine carrying her daughter, her heart skips a beat, and she almost drops her daughter. For a second, she thought she saw her sister’s skirt, but she looked again and saw that it was only a cheap costume, worn by a non-Indigenous person. Some boys walked by the girl wearing the costume, and made a sound with their mouths open in the shape of an “O” and hands tapping their mouth in an old Western movie style “Indian war cry.” Janine felt a bit sick and turned towards home. This was not a joke to her. Her culture, the widespread suffering of her people, and the loss of their culture was being sold at a cheap costume store and mocked. Janine knew that those kids probably knew nothing more about it than what they’d seen in Disney movies but that didn’t make her feel any better about it.

That next day there was a news story, about a costume store. The owner was being interviewed about “culturally appropriate costumes.” The owner stated that the costumes were all in fun and that if they responded to everyone who was offended by a costume they wouldn’t have a business left. Janine’s heart was pounding. She wanted to call the station but she knew what kind of responses she would get and she didn’t know if she could face that, but it did not feel good to be silent either. 

*Jordan stood on the steps of the legislative assembly building holding a sign that read “your pipeline is stealing my future.” He was 14 years old. He watched the politicians come into the building in their suits. Many had gray hair. In a few minutes he and three other youth would be meeting with the premier to discuss their concerns. He was nervous. He’d heard the premier talk about cuts to environmental programs, the need for jobs in the oil an gas industry, and his support of the pipeline. Jordan’s dad had worked on the pipeline when he was younger and had told Jordan that without that job,  Jordan’s mom might not have been able to finish university. Jordan knew that jobs were important but he also knew that the planet was in trouble. He had recently heard that the melting in the arctic meant that global warming would speed up significantly faster than anyone had predicted and that by the time he would be old enough to start his own family, there would be serious global changes which would affect the health of many many people.

Jordan did not know if he could express his anger and fear to the premier, an imposing man with gray hair, who spoke with confidence and seemed really smart, but Jordan knew that someone who was smart and knew how to speak well needed to make some changes. The people he saw around him who could make changes were all so much older than Jordan and just didn’t seem as worried as he was. Jordan was hopeful that the premier might listen to them, to kids who had come to talk to him about their future, because if he didn’t have hope, what else would he have? 


“We initiated the program on safety and alcohol for women, the year before last. It is available at freshman week in September. I’m not sure that the program you are proposing is necessary.” *Lindy took a deep breathe. She was sitting in the assembly room with the university committee for student safety and wellbeing. She’d sent in her proposal for a seminar on “Consent, for Men” about six months ago and  had finally gotten a meeting. Her proposal outlined the need for education for the people most often responsible for perpetuating sexual assault. Lindy remembered the response she had received when she told her parents about being sexually assaulted in high school. They had scolded her for drinking and lectured her about “leading guys on” with her clothing. She felt as if it was all her fault that she had been assaulted, and was depressed for several months, dropping out of the track team, and avoiding friends. It was only after she told a friend about her suicidal thoughts that her friend was able to convince her to talk to the nurse at the clinic down the street. The nurse set her up with a counsellor who helped her to see how the attack was not her fault and how her parents, though they loved her, were wrong to pass blame onto her. Lindy was not at all against educating women on safety and alcohol. In fact, she had been a volunteer at the workshops, offering peer counselling to those who wanted to talk privately afterwards. She heard many stories like hers and was grateful that there was a university supported event where these things could be discussed. But Lindy felt that the responsibility to make change needed to be shared. The participants who filled out feedback forms after the workshops felt the same way. Men needed to be educated and take responsibility for their actions too.

This was all in her proposal. Lindy wondered if any of the committee members had actually read it. They were all much older than her and while there were only a few more men than women, she wondered if they really could understand what was at stake here. She’d been warned that this committee was more interested in not spending any money than making any real changes that might support the health and safety of students, unless the risk of not doing so meant some kind of legal action. Lindy wasn’t sure what would convince them.

A debate is not simply a debate when one person stands to lose everything and the other is not impacted in any tangible way, or, only minimally, by the outcome. If your safety, housing, employment, human rights or mental health is at risk based on the outcome of a debate then you are a significant stakeholder in the debate. In theory, your perspective should be given the most air time and valued above those who are not put at risk by the outcome of the debate. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It can be difficult, sometimes to determine when to speak up and when to hold back. When the stakes are high, change is essential, but so is your safety and wellbeing. At times, speaking up can increase your sense of strength and be a form of healing. At other times, speaking up can increase the risks for you to the point of causing further harm to you. Only you can judge when it is right to speak up, how to do so, and when not to.


Here are a few things to consider when engaging in a debate on an issue: 

Know what is at stake for you. 

The outcome of speaking up versus not speaking up is not necessarily going to tell you if you’ve made the right decision. You cannot control other peoples’ responses. You can only take the information from your experience and determine if it is useful or relevant to the next situation. Do not judge yourself for your decisions based on outcome. You can only make a choice based on the information you had at that time and the tools you had on hand. Do not judge yourself for having fear.

Set boundaries for yourself. 

Determine what topics you will agree to discuss, and which ones you will leave to others at this time. Not all issues can be engaged with at all times. Ones current life situation, open wounds and concerns shift and change over time and there are times when the stakes are too high to engage with it.

Determine how much time and and energy to put into debating an issue.

If all your energy is spent trying to convince people who have less at stake in the issue than you, of your perspective, you will run out of energy faster than those who have little to lose. You might decide to limit the time you spend debating an issue and and decide to put other energy into building solutions or supporting others who also have a lot at stake in an issue. Consider alternative ways to dialogue/debate about an issue apart from only verbal discussions. For example, through art, humour, symbolic action, etc.

Don’t go it alone. 

Find people who share your values. Go to events designed to support you and the issues that most affect you. Connect with others who are also working on issues. Make friends with these people. Be vulnerable with others who have done this work for longer than you. Look for support from those who get it. Look for support from more than one or two people – build your own network/community, get to know the strengths and limits of your community.  Ask for help when you need it. Plan debates/actions/activities with others. Pre-plan for supportive after care when you are able to plan ahead to engage in a debate, action, etc.

Creative Resting

Some situations are not conducive to rest. Living in a hostile home, community and/or society is not something everyone can get away from. Seeing the effects of that hostility in oneself and in others that we love means that we can’t always avoid the issues or forget about it for any length of time. Bubble baths and spa trips are not going to be sufficient to heal and rejuvenate in between hostile interactions.

Here are a few ideas about getting some rest: 

  • Sometimes focusing on building something that models what we want in society can be a rest from debating with others about and issue.
  • Curate information streams to focus on things that inspire, and not only infuriate. It can be tricky to find a balance between avoiding information and taking a break. We’re living in the information age and haven’t yet figured out what amount of information is effective in keeping us informed and not overwhelmed by things we have no control over. At this point, it’s up to each of us to try and set up parameters on what we hear, read and see.
  • Taking strategic breaks from media, particularly social media, and/or particular topics of discussion might be important for you.
  • You might also ask others to step up as a voice or as a more active participant in a issue that you are involved in.
  • When people in your home are hostile, being proactive about getting time away with other supportive people will be needed. You may also need support to set boundaries with others in the home about how they engage with you about that topic.
  • When your home is hostile, you may also need to work towards long term strategies to get more separation from those who are hostile, if possible.
  • Find places to vent, with supportive others, about what you are feeling and experiencing. Do this in person if possible, but also online.

Check out an article called 5 Self Care Tips for Activists — ‘Cause Being Woke Shouldn’t Mean Your Spirit’s Broke by Kim Tran, for more fantastic tips on this topic.


You might also want to check out

Conflict- Approach or Avoid? 6 Things to Consider

And What do You Really Need? – A 6 Step Complete Self-Care Assessment Guide

And Do You Care Too Much?

And 5 Mental Health Hazards to avoid for Allies/wanna-be’s Trying to Stay Woke

4 thoughts on “When the Stakes are High – Caring for Your Mental Health When Debating Things That Matter

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