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.
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 important building block.
One-on-one interactions may 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.
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 to 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.
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.
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