Mental Health Advocacy and You: Some Personal Observations

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I’m not sure I have ever done a post on mental health advocacy. Maybe I should talk from my own experience.


    I recently stepped down from four-plus years as a board member of NAMI San Diego. Our affiliate is one of the most active in all of NAMI. In my time there, we more than doubled our budget and staff, added new programs, and expanded our outreach. Two years ago, we received recognition as the outstanding local affiliate. 


    It was a positive experience overall, but not without its challenges.


    Back when I lived in New Jersey, I was the founding facilitator of a DBSA support group in Princeton, from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2006. This was strictly a shoe-string operation, but three years after I left, the group received recognition as the outstanding small chapter. Again, a positive experience, but challenging.

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    In addition, since early 1999 I have been very active in writing on mental health, which includes a website, blogging, and a book. Along the way, I picked up two public service awards. Once again - positive but challenging.


    I like to joke that mental health is driving me crazy. Maybe one day I will get smart. So, what have I learned?


    Get involved. 


    Your community desperately needs your wisdom and insight, but the one who benefits most is you. Your life will have a purpose. You will connect to something greater than yourself. You will discover strengths you never knew you had. You will grow and develop as a person. 


    Writing about my illness helped me acquire a sense of personal worth. Facilitating a DBSA support group helped me overcome my social anxiety and made me more sensitive to the needs of others. Serving on a local NAMI board gave me faith in my ability to meet novel challenges on the fly. 


    Do not get over-involved.


    This tends to be the fate of dedicated advocates. Small commitments develop into big commitments, which have the tendency of taking over your life. This may be okay when things go right, but inevitably things also go wrong. And there you are, emotionally over-invested, dealing with the hurt.


    Yes, people love you for giving away your time for nothing. But these same people also have a way of devaluing anything that is free, you along with it. In truth, advocacy is a thankless job. You need to be prepared for that.


    You can be replaced.


    This goes hand-in-hand with not getting over-involved. The second you think you are indispensable is the time you need to seriously think about leaving the organization. Mental health advocacy is full of heroes, but if you find yourself shouldering too large a load it means others aren’t pulling their weight.


    Take a lesson from them: If they don’t care, neither should you. 


    There will always be A-holes.


    Seat a dozen people around a table and there will always be one you simply don’t get along with, probably two, possibly three. I have formed many deep and lasting associations in my advocacy work, but I have also encountered people I am very happy to forget, as well.


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    Sometimes you can maneuver around these people, other times you can stand up to them. But there will be times when the environment comes too toxic for you. When that happens, keep in mind: You are doing thankless work, you are not getting paid, you are replaceable. 


    You are always serving the interests of the organization, not your own.


    Mental health organizations are very limited in what they can do. As well, they are overburdened. What they need from you is to help them do what they do best today, so they will be doing it tomorrow.


    You may have ideas for getting them to do something else. If so, you need to be starting your own organization. 


    Talk to any mental health advocate and you will encounter a certain level of personal frustration. Typically, the advocate’s vision and passion overshoots the capabilities of the organization. Sometimes, the key people in the organization are just plain short-sighted.


    If you want to lead an unhappy life, continue banging your head against a wall. 


    Nevertheless, do not be afraid to make your mark.


    When advocacy goes right, it is because you are in the right place at the right time. Pure luck, in other words. In these situations, you may find yourself in your element, with people looking to you for guidance and leadership. But situations change. In due course, you may find yourself irrelevant or even barely tolerated. That’s life. Ration your anger and disappointment accordingly and move on.


    It’s all about connections.


    Your involvement with organizations will come and go. But the connections you make today will stay with you a long time, if you so decide. Next time you get involved, it may be to pursue your own vision, your own agenda. This may be your life dream. Your connections will help get you there.


    It’s also about meaning.


    The best thing you can do for yourself is help others. Mental health advocacy may not be for you, but there are other causes worth getting out of bed in the morning. Trust me, you were born for this.  




    Please join in the discussion. I am sure you have a lot of concerns about getting involved in mental health advocacy. Please do you hesitate to ask. I will respond to the best of my ability.  

Published On: November 02, 2013