How to be a Great Mental Health Advocate
You care. You want to speak up to help dispel mental health stigma. You wish it was easier, not harder, for people to get support. Wouldn't it be great if people weren't made to feel embarrassed or bad for needing mental health treatment?
Yes? Then you can be a fantastic mental health advocate. You might think only professionals or people with schmancy degrees can help but nope! It doesn't matter who you are:
You can make a difference.
So how does anyone go about making a difference to help dispel mental health stigma and be a great advocate for mental health? How do you go about being an excellent mental health ally? There are a ton of things you can do, some big, plenty small. Start where you are at and never underestimate the impact even the smallest efforts can have on the world.
Even if you only do one little thing, it might have a really helpful impact on someone.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Talk about your own experiences with mental health or emotional difficulties, only as much as you feel comfortable. When we're struggling, it can feel like everyone else is great and we're the only one with problems. When you share that you are a full human being, difficulties and all, it shows people that it is okay to not be perfect, it shows people that there are people who get it, and that they're not alone or bad for going through their own challenges.
- Educate yourself. Don't know why some people get depressed even though their life seems great? Google it. Is ADHD a fake disorder? Look it up. People living with mental health concerns deal with stigma all the time and sometimes educating someone can be exhausting and tedious. Do the work on your end so you can lighten, not increase, their load.
- Honor the varied experiences of folks with mental health diagnoses. LISTEN to them. Some people will wish for a cure, some will disagree say their "diagnosis" is a gift, medications work for some people, some people do not want or need them, people with the same disorder have very different experiences and symptoms - all of this is valid. Do not tell anyone what they should feel, do, or what they should think about their own mental health and identity.
- Consider accessibility and accommodations for people's unique mental health and neurocognitive needs. Consider providing various modes of information (auditory, written, visual), finding effective means of communication that take into account the individual's needs, give them access and space to emotionally regulate or self-care, listen to them about accommodations or support they need and finding a way to provide that. Note: none of this means "I have XYZ diagnosis, therefor I have no responsibility for my actions and you just have to deal with it."
- Want to talk about treatment and tips for change? Stay on your own lawn. You can talk about what things helped for you, but don't tell other people that "yoga cures anxiety." If you want to talk about some research you read, emphasize that this doesn't mean that everyone should try that treatment and that everyone should be fixed right up by it. Overselling treatments and misinformation interferes with people actually finding effective solutions for achieving their goals.
- Be an affirming voice just by bringing up mental health topics, just reminding people that it is smart and ok to get help, that it is okay to talk about things like depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder and more. The more people stop treating mental health and mental health topics like a dirty, shameful thing, the more progress we make.
- Remember advocacy is a verb. You need to go to bat sometimes, even times where it is tempting just to hide in the dugout. Sure, you can't do everything all the time and we are allowed to have our own limits, but focus on the ways in which you are able to take real actions to make real change for people with mental health diagnoses. Are you making things easier, more accessible, and safer or are your actions contributing, perpetuating, or even increasing the load, the difficulties, and risk for folks with mental health concerns?
- Employ, commission, and promote the work of people with mental health disorders. Stigma against folks with mental health disorders in the workplace is strong, many being denied accommodations if hired. Hire and create an accessible, accommodating workspace to allow folks to show how much they can contribute to your company or work without being hindered by a prohibitive work environment. The Americans With Disabilites Act and other local government resources will provide help for being attentive to folks' needs.
- Acknowledge, support, and amplify the voices of folks with mental health disorders. Share their articles, retweet their educational social media accounts, cite their articles. If you've learned from them, note and give them credit. Don't talk over them and speak up if other people attempt to talk over them or dismiss their words.
- Work to be aware of your own biases around mental health. We're inundated with harmful misinformation, stigmas, and stereotypes about mental health and mental health disorders. Practice mindfulness to help prevent that barrage of harmful concepts from interfering with your ability to treat others with respect, compassion, and dignity. If someone points out your bias or an unintentionally harmful statement you made, listen and work to correct it without defensiveness or explaining yourself.
These can be hard to do, but imagine how hard it is to be a person who actually has these harmful stigmas directed at them regularly. They don't get to shrug it off or walk away if it is a family member, friend, or coworker saying these things to them. When we speak up, we have the opportunity to help keep that stigma from hurting more people.
You can address these as patiently and gently or as firmly as it suits your needs and personality.
- Speak up when folks minimize someone’s struggles by saying those typical, really wrong, disparaging mental health misconceptions, like “you gotta be strong,” “you just can’t let that get to you,” "people need to stop being so sensitive," “you need to stop being [insert derogatory word here, like lazy, weak, a pussy, etc],” and so on. Share how a lot of mental health issues are not remedied by simply more effort or trying to magically be different.
- Speak up when people to shame or talk crap about mental health issues people who have mental health disorders or people who are getting mental health treatment. Time out or take the time to address these stigmatizing and condemning types of statements. Terms like "weak," "lazy," "thin-skinned," "whiny" when referring to mental health can be harmful and shame people into silence and not getting treatment.
- Speak up when people make flippant comments or jokes about about actual mental disorders, like “I’m soooo OCD, I love to organize my videogame collection” or “that’s so psycho.” "You have ADHD? Oh, look - squirrel!" Take a moment to share how those statements belittle folks with mental disorders, minimize the reality and difficulty of those disorders, and perpetuates stigma that keeps people from getting help. You don’t need to be all preachy about it either. A simple, “dude, unless you have an actual diagnosis of OCD, we can’t be making jokes about real mental disorders” is great.
- Speak up when folks say belittling solutions, like telling people they “just gotta do XYZ” to make things all better. "Have you tried thinking more positively?" A lot of people have heard it all and are probably better informed than you about what things help their mental disorder. Remind people that sometimes it takes more than just XYZ to treat a mental health issue and sometimes therapy or medication or more involved treatment is necessary.
Being a Good Friend
Being a good advocate for mental health isn't only for big picture situations. A lot of times we have friends and family who trust us and come to us with their emotional difficulties. Here are some ways we can be a great ally:
- LISTEN and be cool about other people actually having emotions. Sometimes when people have strong emotions, we have the reaction of "OMG I HAVE TO MAKE THEM FEEL BETTER NAO!" It is often more about our difficulty with their emotions and less about actually helping them. Sitting, listening, and being cool (not reactive) when people express emotions shows that emotions are okay and healthy and you keep the situation focused on them, not you. If they then want help, you can comfort them, listen, or help them problem solve how to cope or fix the situation, if requested.
- Don't try to fix other people's problems. When we try to fix someone who isn't asking for fixing, it can make them feel like a problem or a bother. It can also communicate a lack of faith in the person and can be even belittling or paternalistic. If they didn't ask for info on your kale yoga smoothie cleanse, don't share it. Also keep in mind that trying to act like someone's therapist when you are not can actually prevent them from getting professional mental health treatment. Stay on your own lawn and have healthy boundaries - that is the healthy way to help people. Unhealthy + unhealthy does not equal healthy for anyone.
- Encourage people to get professional mental health support, especially if they voice interest in it. If someone mentions feeling bummed, don't yell "get a therapist" at them. But if someone is mentioning that they're really struggling and don't know what to do because life is getting bleak? You might want to emphathically suggest getting help. A lot of people fear being shamed or being looked at as weak or stupid if they get professional support. When you encourage people, you are letting them know that you value their wellbeing, you support them in taking care of their mental health needs, and you are helping empower them to care of themselves.
- Provide mental health resources and crisis hotlines to people in need. You can have these on your website, blog, or on your Discord. If someone expresses having thoughts about harming themselves or others, direct them to call a hotline.
- Learn the art of validation. Listen, relate to them, and give them space to be honest and open about their experience. Validate them, letting them know you appreciate or have empathy for their feelings. If they're talking about something that seems hard to validate ("I am so ugly."), you can validate their experience ("It sucks to feel ugly."). Secret pro-tip: don't underestimate how powerful a heartfelt "that really sucks" can be for someone.
The #1 tip for mental health advocacy
Listen to what you're told. Listen to what people want to tell you. Listen to what people say they need. Listen to how you are affecting others - yes, even if you didn't intend to hurt anyone and yes, even if it was "just a joke." Listen to what this person's experience is like. Listen even more if you don't understand. Listen if someone tells you that what you did wasn't okay, was problematic, or harmful. Listen even when you are tempted to defend yourself. Listen when you think you know better than the other person when they're trying to tell you about their own life. Listen when people tell you what they want. Listen to people when they have emotions and needs.
Listen when people are telling you about themselves, what their life is like, what they need.
Listen and then choose healthy ways of taking action to be responsive and supportive in a way that also honors your own needs and boundaries, without violating the needs and boundaries of other people.