The term “advocate” can sometimes elicit ideas of protesters and picket lines, phone banks and maybe even knocking on doors to talk to people; a lot of these things having negative connotations. However, advocacy at its most basic level is about giving a voice to something, and that should not be a negative thing. When it comes to mental health advocacy, there are many ways to advocate for a cause that do not involve approaching strangers on the street.
If you have the resources, you can donate to organizations that are all about reducing stigma, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), or even the Mental Health Association in Greensboro (MHAG). You can also volunteer with these organizations, in both administrative and office positions, or in outreach programs.
NAMI offers a lot of opportunities for those wishing to contribute to the advocacy of mental illness. You can take the “stigmafree” pledge online at http://www.nami.org/stigmafree; in doing so, you promise to educate yourself and others about mental illness in an effort to reject stigmatizing stereotypes; you promise to “see the person and not the illness” so as to treat those who are struggling with kindness and empathy; and you promise to take action on mental health issues in hopes of pushing for better mental illness legislation and policies. Once you take the pledge, you can continue to propagate the stigmafree cause by sharing images and hashtags on social media.
NAMI’s website lists a plethora of ways to get involved in mental illness advocacy, with ideas ranging from simply showing empathy and compassion for those living with mental health conditions to advocating for mental health reform from your local politicians. If you’re looking for more ways to make a difference, check out their website at http://www.nami.org.
The hard thing about mental illness advocacy is that it is a topic that still makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I’ve noticed that when I bring up the topic, a lot of people will respond with laughing or joking around in a manner of inattentiveness, similar to the way some people use sarcasm or humor to mask their true feelings when they’re feeling vulnerable.
So many young people are still growing up in homes and communities where mental illness is not openly discussed, where mental illness is always surrounded by shame and silence, where they hear comments about “crazy” people and are taught that these issues aren’t relevant to them.
If you talk to someone about mental illness and are greeted by someone who tries to divert the conversation, do your best not to respond harshly or with anger. Advocacy gets a bad name when people are forceful with it. No one is receptive to having a topic shoved down their throat, so if you find yourself in a situation where you’re trying to talk about mental illness and you’re being ignored, be gentle with the person.
I have found that the best way to get someone’s attention on this topic is to explain why it is important, either as a whole, or why it is important specifically to you. It’s also important to be conscious of the language you’re using. Terms like “crazy,” “psycho,” or “lunatic” are pervasive in our culture, so much so that people don’t realize how disrespectful and ableist those words truly are. It’s easy to allow those words to slip into your discourse just because you’re hearing them everywhere, but try to be conscientious of it and find better terms to use.
Getting involved in mental health advocacy is easy. By watching what you say, and standing beside those who have mental illnesses, you can advocate for them, give them a voice where they’ve been largely ignored. Don’t run when you hear the word “advocate,” but embrace it, and you will know you’re giving a voice to the disenfranchised.