The mental health community needs you! It doesn't matter whether or not you have struggled with your mental health in the past, are still fighting today, or have watched someone close to you struggle. We are in a battle, and it's us versus the stigma that surrounds mental health. While there has been some progress in this area, we have a long way to go.
I believe some of the best mental health advocates are those that have first-hand experience – people who have wrestled with depression and anxiety, experienced the shame of stigma, and have learned how to take their recovery one day at a time. If you are in the midst of a struggle, advocacy work can give you an opportunity to shift your focus outward.
That's what happened to me. When I was at a low point in my life, I reached out for help to a friend who invited me to speak about mental health at a conference. That opportunity motivated me to keep toughing it out day by day and started me down a path to becoming a mental health advocate and public speaker.
Merriam Webster defines advocacy as "the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal." I think of an advocate as someone who cares about a cause and actively works to help promote awareness of it. You can be an advocate in a variety of ways. Start with these.
1. Start sharing your story
We need more people with first-hand experience talking about mental health challenges. Just by sharing your journey, you can help others see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not an oncoming train. The darkest moments of your life can be just the thing that people who are struggling need to hear to know that they can make it through. It also can help to break the stereotypes that society has about mental health.
2. Educate yourself on the topic
By educating yourself about mental wellness, you will learn valuable strategies that you can use to empower yourself and others. There are many advocacy groups with which you can volunteer. The following groups have local, state, and national chapters:
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- Mental Health America (MHA)
- National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health(NFF-CMH)
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
Aside from the education and resources that these groups provide, they offer you an opportunity to meet other people with various mental health journeys. Getting involved in events and activities is an excellent opportunity to feel a sense of community and make new friends.
3. Put your money where your mouth is
Fundraising is an excellent opportunity to bond with other people interested in mental health. Participate in a walk, run, or other event, and put your money where your mouth is.
4. Educate the community
You don’t have to be a respected psychiatrist or neuroscientist to educate your community on mental health issues. Work with local organizations, schools, and businesses to bring in mental health speakers, or be a speaker yourself. Make it your mission to educate people and decrease the stigma surrounding mental health. Everyone, including you, will be better off.
5. Petition to change laws
Protest when injustice occurs! Be willing to speak up for those that are unable to speak up for themselves! Working with governments is an excellent opportunity to learn about the laws surrounding mental health in your city, state, and nation. Your in-depth knowledge of these laws will be critical when you begin to petition for the changes that you feel need to happen.
6. Get mental health into the conversation
Most importantly, don't stop talking about the importance of mental health. Dialogue is where change begins. Address the stigma, use facts to inform, and don't be afraid to confront the stereotypes. If we want to normalize discussions and help people get treatment, we need to change the conversation. Treat “haters” with compassion. Look for teachable moments to help ignorant people open their minds and understand mental health a little better. Point them toward data and resources. Be gentle in your message.
These ideas are the beginning of your advocacy journey. I encourage you to be persistent in showing people that the stereotypes are not accurate. Join up with one of the groups mentioned above and start spreading awareness on mental health issues. But in your advocacy work, don’t forget self-care. Make sure you are in a place to take on this type of work before putting yourself in a position you are not ready to face. Your mental health comes first! Then jump in and help the cause!
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