The exact terms used to describe someone who stands up for mental health can vary; mental health advocate seems more common in North America, while campaigner seems popular in the U.K. I’ve seen a number of discussions on Twitter regarding the most appropriate term and what’s involved (and not involved) in the role. In this post I’ll use the term advocate, and focus on what that might look like.
What mental health advocacy is
An article on Psych Central quotes writer/blogger Therese Borchard, who defines a mental health advocate as “anyone who is a voice for those suffering from depression, anxiety, or any other disorder—who hopes to disseminate a message of hope and support.” I quite like that definition.
Advocacy can be done either by those of us living with mental illness or by those who support us. The voices of people who don’t have a mental illness deserve to be heard, but if their voices drown out our own, that’s not a good thing.
Creating dialogue around mental illness can be done on a large scale, one-to-one, or anywhere in between. Speaking on a large scale isn’t going to be an option for many people to begin with, but equally important is that the effects of the illness itself can impose limits on what can be done.
Mental health advocacy can involve connections between people with mental illness and those without, but it can also happen within the mental illness community. This mutual support empowers all of us to use our voices in whichever way is the best fit for us. Individual blogging interactions may seem like a drop in the bucket, but when those little drops of support are happening every day across the blogosphere, it adds up.
Advocacy may be more formal, and may involve legal representation or assistance in accessing government or other support services.
What advocacy is not
There is no one-size-fits-all advocate role. Advocacy is whatever each of us chooses to make it on an individual level, within the context of whatever factors might be limiting how freely we can speak. That means there should not be expectations attached to the role of advocate.
A mental health advocate isn’t a mental health professional unless they’ve clearly self-identified as such. They don’t have to be knowledgeable about everything under the sun, and no one is entitled to emotional or crisis support from someone simply because the person identifies as an advocate. Just because someone’s Twitter bio says they’re a mental health advocate doesn’t mean their DMs are open at any time to anyone who may be looking for support, and it doesn’t mean they will know the answers to whatever questions might get thrown their way.
Revealing one’s identity isn’t necessary to be a mental health advocate. Your story and how you use your voice matter; whether you use your actual name or a pseudonym doesn’t. Granted, if you’re doing in-person speaking engagements, that’s a different situation. Overall, though, choosing not to share your real name doesn’t make you any less of an advocate. Only you can understand the repercussions that you’d likely face if you were open about your identity, so only you are in a position to decide whether or not that’s acceptable.
Advocacy doesn’t have to be about systems-level change. Most of us don’t have and never will have enough clout to effect change at that level, and that’s okay. If you convey to one blogger that it’s okay to not be okay, I’d say that in and of itself is a form of advocacy.
Defining your own role
Being a mental health advocate can look however you want it to look. While you can look to others for ideas and inspiration, there is no hierarchy or need to be “good enough.” Of course, it’s easy to fall into the comparison trap just like it is with any other social dynamic, but in my mind, wanting to support people with mental illness is good enough in and of itself.
Why does any of this matter? Well, stigma exists. As long as it does, the more people we can get talking about mental, health the better.
There’s more on mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.