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co-authored by Julia Wise and Sam Hilton

We’ve had sessions on “self-care for altruists” at several EA Global conferences. Some local group organizers have asked for tips on how to host similar sessions.

Getting started

Here’s one written description we've used in announcements about these sessions:

It can be difficult to balance big altruistic goals with taking care of your own physical and mental well-being. Share your thoughts, and hear from other EAs about what has worked for them.

And a verbal prompt to give at the start of the session:

People often come to EA because they have big altruistic goals. It can be hard to balance those big goals with the realities of taking care of ourselves physically and mentally.

This is a safe space. You are invited to share thoughts on what this is like for you, how you handle that balance. That said, no one has to talk about anything. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, it's totally fine to step out of the room.

We’ll keep this session confidential. What’s said in this room stays here. Afterwards, it’s fine to talk about general topics that came up, but not “This person said that.”

Finally, please refrain from giving advice or direct comments in response to what other people say, keep the conversation to your lived experiences and what has worked well for you. At the end there will be time for sharing general advice with the whole group.

Remember we are all different and what works well for one person may not be of use to another person.

If you feel up for it, get things started by sharing something you’ve been thinking about in your own life. (One or two organizers may want to plan in advance something they’d like to say. In the past, participants have seemed to find it especially helpful for someone with standing in the community to speak about difficult experiences / depression / anxiety they’ve had, as it makes clear that it really is ok to talk about these things.)

At that point, people usually have a lot to say and the conversation flows pretty easily.

One possible structured activity to include is an adaptation of the Wellness Action Plan from Mind (a mental health nonprofit). The guide is on page 15 and can be adapted to be about "friends" rather than "manager" and "when doing activism / when involved in the EA community" rather than "at work," etc.

Other tips

  • We suggest keeping the focus on "self care" and/or “getting support" rather than "mental health.” Topics around mental health will naturally arise, but this way the topic can also encompass experiences that don't fall within the category of an illness.
  • People will express very different things, sometimes things that directly contradict each other’s experiences. It can be helpful for the moderator to do a little summarizing that makes it clear it’s ok to have different experiences: “It sounds like even though that’s been helpful for some people, you've found it's not what worked for you.”

    Similarly, it can be helpful to discourage advice giving directed at a particular person as this may not be very useful, and can make people feel judged and uncomfortable.
  • Make sure it is clear that there's choice about how to participate. Use the language of invitation throughout. "You are invited to share if you wish..." rather than "Can everyone share a thing ... "
  • Consider splitting some of the session into small groups of 4-5, especially if you have group facilitators. This can help create a space where everyone can share.
  • Consider focusing the discussions. For example, a chunk of time for only talking about difficulties and struggles, and then a separate time for talking about things you have tried that have helped.
  • A show of hands: "Who has feelings of [imposter syndrome, not doing enough, guilt for looking after yourself first, etc], please raise your hands" is a powerful way of letting people know that they are not alone and that everyone has these feelings.
  • Sometimes in sessions like this people speak about deep/serious personal experiences. Don't expect people to make obvious progress on these in the session — the purpose of the session is not problem-solving, but people knowing that they can talk about the hard parts of their lives with their EA community.
  • If someone opens up a lot emotionally, we suggest having an organizer speak with them one-on-one at the end of the session, thank them for sharing, and offer to check in about how they’re feeling before they depart. Someone who’s shared deeply may be feeling uncertain about whether they did the right thing. It may be useful for them to hear reassurance that it was ok to share, and to be able to express any lingering thoughts while not in front of a large group.
  • Think about what you'd do if things surface that make you concerned about someone's safety. E.g. Julia once participated in a similar session in a different community where a person disclosed that they were essentially stalking someone. No one in the group really knew what to do. In retrospect I think we should have had someone with designated responsibility for following up, along the lines of, "I hear what a tough time you're going through, but the way you're treating this other person sounds really concerning." Likewise if you're concerned about the safety of someone in the session, be sure that someone checks in with them afterwards.
  • There has been particular good attendance and feedback where these kind of support events have been bolted onto other events (conferences, retreats, etc.)

End of session

It is good to end with a summary of what support is available.

  • Anyone can talk to me privately after the event if they would find that helpful.
  • This session should not be considered in anyway a replacement for professional support. If you are feeling like you cannot be happy, feeling suicidal, or are struggling with day to day activities, then please do consider professional medical support [how to seek professional medical support in your country].
  • Julia Wise works for CEA, has worked in the field of mental health, and can be contacted at julia@centreforeffectivealtruism.org for further resources and support.
  • There is a Facebook peer support group.
  • EA Mental Health Navigator service, with list of providers recommended by others.

Anyone else have general advice to share?

Plan for some lighter social time (snacks, unstructured chatting) afterwards so people have some time to adjust if needed before going home.

Repeat the resources above in a written form after the event (like a followup email or FB post).

Past sessions

Notes from session at EAGx Netherlands 2018.

Notes from session at EA Global London 2017.





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