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What Makes Someone a Mental Health Advocate?

What makes someone a mental health advocate - person with a megaphone

I consider myself a mental health advocate, but what does that actually mean? It probably means different things to different people, but let’s chat about it.

What a mental health advocate is

Before we get to my definition, here’s what a couple of other sources have to say.

Mental health advocates are heroes — individuals who do not wear capes, but who work tirelessly every day to share their stories and help those who are struggling. They take risks and show their vulnerability by telling their truth in hopes of encouraging someone else.

Kristen Fuller, NAMI.org

A mental health advocate is a person who provides support to those with mental illness. This can come in many forms, including providing emotional support and advice on dealing with their diagnosis.

Mental health advocates are not only the voice of those living with mental illness but also their hands. They listen, speak up for them, stand up for them, and fight alongside them.

Verywell Mind

For me, a mental health advocate is anyone who’s starting and participating in conversations about the reality of mental health issues, including mental illness. Admittedly, that’s a pretty broad definition. Within that broad range of conversations, I see a few key areas of focus: in-group, out-group, and policy-makers/lawmakers.

In-group-focused advocacy

This is something those of us in the mental health blogging community are already doing. We’re starting conversations to support others dealing with mental illness in talking about their own experiences. While it may not be immediately obvious that this is advocacy, I think it’s really important to create safe spaces where people can talk openly about mental illness. Having that support provides an important foundation for anyone wanting to broaden their reach and can help to counteract self-stigma, so I very much believe that in-group advocacy is an an important building block.

Even if interactions seem like a drop in the bucket, but when those little drops of support are happening every day across the blogosphere and other online communities, it adds up.

Out-group-focused advocacy

To challenge public stigma, it’s important to show people who aren’t dealing with mental illness what it’s really like in order to replace stereotypes with human faces. We can do that on a small scale simply by disclosing our own illnesses, even if we only do that selectively.

Sure, it’s important that some people are advocating for positive change on a larger level, but I think the small-scale work is just as important. Not everyone is going to have the desire or the capacity to be a major social media influencer, for example, and that’s totally fine. You don’t need to have 100K Instagram or Twitter followers do be an advocate.

Advocacy directed at policy-makers and lawmakers

To change the laws and organizational policies that make things harder for people with mental illnesses, we need people doing advocacy work directed at the people who make those laws and policies. There’s more on this in the post Political Advocacy to Challenge Mental Illness Stigma. This kind of thing is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and there’s likely to be a whole lot of banging one’s head against a wall before any major change happens.

I suspect advocacy organizations are able to accomplish more than most individual advocates in this area. In the US, organizations like NAMI and Mental Health America are active in political advocacy, while in Canada, the Canadian Mental Health Association is the leading advocacy organization. While I think these kinds of organizations do important work, I do have some concerns about them consisting of people speaking for us rather than being us. I would like to see the boards of directors of these organizations heavily stacked with people who themselves have mental illnesses, but unfortunately, that doesn’t tend to be the reality.

Anonymity

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, I don’t think that choosing not to share your real name makes you any less of an advocate.

Only you can understand the repercussions that you might face by being open about your identity, so only you are in a position to decide whether or not that’s acceptable.

Self-advocacy

Then there’s self-advocacy. In my own head, I’m less likely to attach the “advocate” label to this, but self-advocacy is probably something most of us dealing with mental illness will have to do at some point in our journey. That might involve trying to get a doctor to pay attention to our symptoms, address side effects we may be experiencing, or do paperwork to allow us to access services or benefits. Getting onto and staying on disability benefits is almost certain to require a hefty dose of self-advocacy.

I wish it didn’t have to be like this, and I don’t think it should have to be. Health professionals really need to do better.

People advocating for us

Then there are legal advocates. Depending on where you live, mental health legislation may give you the right to have an advocate representing your interests. In the UK, this is called statutory advocacy, and the charitable organization Mind‘s website has more information on that. In British Columbia, the Canadian province where I live, people who challenge their involuntary detention under the Mental Health Act are able to have the free services of an advocate to represent them at a review panel hearing.

Are you a mental health advocate?

Being a mental health advocate, influencer, or whatever you want to call it can look however you want it to look. While you can look to others for ideas and inspiration, there’s 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.

Talking about something like mental illness that’s socially stigmatized takes a certain degree of bravery. Bravery doesn’t mean that it’s not scary or difficult; bravery means doing it anyway even if it does feel scary.

It’s easy to minimize our own capacity to make a difference, and that minimization might make you feel like no, you aren’t an advocate. But I say own the power you do have, and give yourself credit for difficult things. As Rachel Platten sings in Fight Song, “I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion.”

Do you see yourself as a mental health advocate?

Social Health Network has some great tools to support you in your advocacy work. It’s free to sign up, and you can use this invitation.

The post Way to Share Your Mental Health Story has links to a variety of places where you can get your story out into the world.

Everybody's been there, everybody's been stared down
By the enemy
Fallen for the fear and done some disappearing
Bow down to the mighty
But don't run, stop holding your tongue
Maybe there's a way out of the cage where you live
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

With what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

Innocence, your history of silence
Won't do you any good
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty
Why don't you tell them the truth?

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave


Brave – Sara Bareilles
Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

There’s more on stigma in Mental Health @ Home’s Stop the Stigma page.

28 thoughts on “What Makes Someone a Mental Health Advocate?”

  1. Yes, I consider myself a mental advocate through blogging, sometimes publicly talking about mental health with individuals and the longest I have done has been advocate for my mum. I have been her cheerleader to try and build her confidence, to speaking up when she couldn’t do it and towards the end when her mental health took a turn for the worst, speaking up more on her behalf and doing things on her behalf.

  2. The part about it being scary resonated with me. What I do is often scary. And, I often try and talk myself out of doing it.
    As well, I feel like I should do more to give others hope. That is scary too, as I’m not really sure I am always helpful. Time will tell I guess. Thanks for a great post.

  3. I actually didn’t know I do various kinds of advocacy, especially as advocacy where I live tends to mean public speaking and media interviews in the newspaper or on TV It has to be only situational, and you must be able to work of course…if it’s chronic depression/anxiety the stigma then haunts that public advocate. Many other diagnoses carry even more stigma.

    1. Yeah, there can definitely be a lot of risk in speaking openly.

      And I agree, public speaking and media interviews require a pretty high level of wellness that people who are really struggling with illness probably aren’t going to have.

  4. I try to break through stigmas by telling about my struggles with my health. I try to be open and honest. I mainly write for myself, to be honest, so I’m not sure I’d label myself as an advocate. But maybe, to some, I may be one. 😊
    I think it’s good to write about mental health, about the bumps in the road, about the directions you must choose from, even when the right one for you isn’t available.
    Thanks for making me think about this. It’s very informative. 😊 Have a lovely day 🌸

    1. Thank you! And that’s a really good point about talking about the directions we must choose from – I think it’s important for people to recognize that the right one often isn’t available.

      1. Yes often you need to choose between bad and worse and it’s so difficult… You sometimes know what you need and not being able to get that… Whatever the reason, you need to learn how to cope. So that’s why I try to write about this when I can. 😊

  5. Gratitude for this post, Ms. Ashley. I never thought of myself as a mental health advocate, but now I sort-of feel like one; and in an odd way, switching from a pseudonym to my actual name made me braver. It feels more “real” to share my story without a mask.

    Thank you for being an advocate (a much more knowledgeable one than I am) that I deeply admire!

  6. Making Lemons

    I enjoy the question you asked here, I do consider myself a mental health advocate. I guess that is why I recently decided to check out this space. I try to address mental health stigmas whenever I am faced with one, and have the emotional capacity to not let a negative reaction to what I have to say bring me down.
    I have been on a recent journey of healing that has made me see thing in a light that I never have before, and I am excited to have found a place where I might not feel like I am talking to a bag of rocks. Yay 💚

  7. I wouldn’t describe myself as an advocate, and for reasons I can’t quite explain, the role of advocate feels somewhat uncomfortable to me. I’d like to believe that I’m a good listener in the conversations on mental health (as someone never formally diagnosed with anything, I question the value of my own participation), I’m certainly not judgmental of therapy or medication or anything. The closest I came to “advocacy” is maybe the series of posts I did about my friend who died by suicide, and I’m actually uncomfortable labeling that as “advocacy” because it really felt more like delayed grief-processing to me. Sorry, this feels like the wrong answer, but I figure I should be honest.

  8. Not sure if I fit the description, but I try to speak up whenever I see behaviour that is out of line. What I mean is that I try to show others that it’s ok that we’re all different and that you can’t be certain of what another person is going through. This is mentioned both at home and in my classroom from time to time.

    I learned to be humble in this when dating a man suffering from anxiety. Up until then, I had no experience of how raw emotions could look and had no idea what to do when his flight instinct kicked in the first time – so I had to go with my gut, trying to show that I meant him no harm using both words and body language. While we’re no longer together, I learned a lot and he is to date one of the persons who know and understand me best!

    Sometimes it would be so much easier if mental illness or NPD was as visible as say a broken leg. It’s so much more difficult for people to understand that you’re a bit ”broken” (for lack of a better word) on the inside, than it is if they see you wearing a cast.

    1. Yes, it’s easy to assume people are fine when their problems aren’t visible.

      I think it’s so important to be able to model to others acceptance of differences and recognition that you can’t know what someone else might be dealing with.

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