You feel passionate about mental health, but what do you do to harness that passion? How do you channel it for the greater good and make a meaningful impact? And how can you help people and inspire change, even if you lack specific credentials or experience?
Mental health advocacy is essential for creating safe communities and helping people live authentic lives. Moreover, good mental health advocacy creates effective policies that benefit everyone. But it’s a continuous process that requires both micro and macro-level disruption.
Here’s what you can do to get involved.
Educate Yourself on Mental Health
More than anything, learning about mental health is the most critical step in becoming an effective advocate. You have to know what you stand for if you want to change anything.
Remember that mental health itself is a broad concept. It’s constantly evolving, particularly as we research more about its precursors, symptoms, and treatment.
But you can educate yourself by reading trusted sources like NAMI, SAMHSA, WHO, or your local county mental health department. You can also speak to people directly. Learn their stories and try to understand their experiences. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.
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Commit to Being an Ally
Allies seek to support and fight the stigma against mental health biases. Even if an ally doesn’t directly struggle with their mental health, they aim to provide a sense of safety. This helps others feel understood.
Being an ally is an ongoing process. You can dedicate yourself to this role by:
- Aiming to be empathic when people disclose their mental health struggles.
- Asking directly how you can provide your support.
- Looking after your own mental health and recognizing your own struggles.
Reduce Stigmatizing Language
Words matter, and stigmatizing language can be extremely damaging. It can also create barriers to seeking treatment. Take time to educate yourself on the preferred words and phrases.
Here is some common preferred language:
- “They have ____ (mental illness)” rather than “they are ____(mental illness)”
- “They are receiving treatment for ____” rather than “they are suffering from ____”
- Psychiatric medication instead of crazy pills, happy pills, drugs
Language, of course, is subjective. It can vary based on the culture, age group, and type of condition. Likewise, what one person finds acceptable may be appalling or inappropriate to someone else.
You may not get it right perfectly each time, but it’s always a good idea to aim to be sensitive.
If you aren’t sure about a specific word or phrase, you can always ask someone directly what they want you to use. Some people won’t have much of an opinion either way. But others will tell you their preference.
Consider Your Own Biases
Nobody is entirely a blank slate, and that also applies to mental health advocacy. After all, you are a dynamic person with your own rich thoughts and experiences.
What biases do you have about mental health? Or about treatment? For example, do you think one type of therapy is inherently better than the other? What about recovery? Do you believe that people can be cured of their conditions or that they will always need to manage their symptoms?
How might these biases impact your advocacy? Moreover, how do these biases affect our society as a whole?
It’s important to be aware of your beliefs and the role they play in your thoughts and behaviors. You may need to challenge certain misconceptions that you hold. You might also want to explore any resistance to letting go of certain biases.
Consider How You Want to Advocate
There are many ways to advocate for mental health. In general, advocacy is about supporting, speaking, and spreading awareness. Here are some common advocate efforts worth considering.
Share Your Own Story
Connection creates a sense of validation. Coming forward with your own experiences can make a significant difference in helping other people feel less alone.
You might find it cathartic to share your story with others. You can do this in many ways: through interviews, blogging, videos, or public speeches. Many websites also encourage people to “guest contribute” as a way of sharing their personal experiences.
Of course, this type of disclosure is inherently personal. If you don’t feel ready to talk about what you’ve gone through, don’t pressure yourself.
Find Positive Role Models
If you aren’t sure how to start your advocacy journey, look for people who are already doing good work. Seek out strong advocates who act in ways that you admire.
You can look online, at local charity events, or via your own peer group to find these role models. Even if you don’t copy their exact approach, you can learn from them and emulate parts that most resonate with you.
Connect With Other Advocates
It’s possible to build fulfilling relationships as part of your advocacy work. In fact, peer support is often what keeps people involved in ongoing outreach.
Try to make a genuine effort to get to know other people doing the same work. You’ll ideally feel more supported in your efforts. In addition, it feels exciting to connect with people who believe in promoting the same cause.
Get Involved With Local Politics and Businesses
Advocacy is political. Getting involved with your local community can help you create the change you seek in the world.
Although it may seem daunting, there are several ways you can get involved with politics, including:
- Attending and participating in city meetings
- Joining a local board or commission
- Speaking to your local representatives
- Joining a campaign that is important to you
- Working and campaigning for a political organization or politician
- Getting involved with a non-profit organization
- Vote in every election
Businesses also play an influential role in advocacy. They inherently have a greater reach than individuals alone. And in today’s digital age, more and more people are choosing to support or boycott companies based on how they align with specific values.
If you’re hosting an event, you might consider asking local businesses if they are willing to sponsor it. See if they’re willing to hang up relevant posters in their store. Ask business owners how they prioritize mental health in the workplace.
Get Creative With Fundraising
There are many ways to raise money for mental health awareness, and your fundraising efforts may vary based on the specific campaign. But if you want some unique ways to earn more dollars, consider:
- Selling one-of-a-kind merchandise
- Hosting a mental health awareness event
- Hosting a silent auction
- Having sponsors match monetary donations
- Hosting a walk-a-thon or run-a-thon
- Using online crowdfunding nonprofit sites
It’s important to assess each fundraising campaign and track data to determine the success rate. Did you raise as much money as you desired? What unforeseen obstacles did you encounter? How can you improve your strategy next time?
Set Realistic Goals
Advocacy is important work, and you should validate yourself for making a meaningful impact on our society. But you shouldn’t volunteer your time, effort, or money at the expense of your own emotional well-being.
Maintaining realistic goals is crucial. You don’t want to overextend yourself, and you also don’t want to feel guilty for not “doing enough.” Instead, try to honor where you are in life right now and be mindful of looking after your own needs.
Think about how much you can reasonably allocate your resources right now. It can certainly be enough to volunteer at a homeless shelter one morning a month or donate a small, fixed percentage of your paycheck to your favorite charity.
Accept That You Can’t Know Everything
As mentioned, mental health is broad. There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness, and that figure doesn’t include all the isolated symptoms and proposed diagnoses.
Don’t pressure yourself to fully understand all of them. Doing so is impossible, and even most professionals focus on treating just a few specialties within their work.
Therefore, many advocates find that it’s helpful to narrow to 1-2 conditions rather than all mental health issues. This can allow you to truly immerse within a niche and understand as much as you possibly can about the symptoms, treatment, and recovery process.
Be Mindful of Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue is a variation of secondary traumatic stress. It sometimes coincides with helping others, and advocates may be at a heightened risk for it. This risk may be even more amplified if you also work in a helping profession, such as teaching, nursing, or therapy.
The signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
- Feeling increasingly cynical or apathetic about your advocacy
- Becoming extremely irritable or frustrated
- Feeling detached from the people you’re helping (or the work you’re doing in general)
- Self-medicating your symptoms with drugs or alcohol
- Having difficulties with focus
- Insomnia or other sleep problems
- Changes in appetite
- Digestive issues
- Headaches and migraines
Sometimes, compassion fatigue is insidious. You might not recognize how much you’re struggling until you’ve been dealing with certain symptoms for several months.
Subsequently, compassion fatigue doesn’t necessarily go away on its own. In many cases, it worsens progressively, especially if you continue exposing yourself to the same type of stress.
Your symptoms are not your fault. But if you are struggling, consider seeking professional support.
Look After Your Own Mental Health
Regardless of your own mental health status, it’s important to be aware that advocacy may have an impact on how you feel about yourself.
Some people, for example, feel triggered working with conditions that closely resemble their own. Others may feel depressed when a certain prognosis doesn’t improve. These emotions are normal, but they may take a toll on your well-being.
With that in mind, looking after your own mental health is crucial. Make sure that you are prioritizing self-care regularly. Reach out to your loved ones if you need support. And if you are in your own recovery, prioritize using healthy coping skills while also being mindful of any triggers.
Remember Your ‘Why’
Advocacy burnout is real, and it’s possible to grow annoyed or resentful of your efforts. This is especially true if you struggle with compassion fatigue or your outreach response isn’t as positive as you want it to be.
Try to remember your core reasons for advocacy at all times. Write them down as a constant reminder. These reasons will help you stay on track even if your motivation starts to wane.
If something isn’t working- or it’s contributing to even more stress- take some time to reassess. Pause and try something new if needed.
And remember that even small steps can trigger enormous change. You aren’t responsible for fixing the entire world overnight. Focus on what feels reasonable to you, and don’t overlook celebrating each milestone along the way.
Although we’ve made great strides in improving mental health awareness, we still have a long way to go. Getting involved in advocacy undoubtedly makes the world a better place.