What is a Mental Health Advocate?
A Mental Health Advocate in the sense that I’m referring to them are people who come forward to publicly raise awareness for and fight stigma against mental health and mental illness. More often than not, Mental Health Advocates have some personal experience with mental health issues and share their story and experiences in order to help others who may be going through a similar situation in their own lives.
I class myself as a Mental Health Advocate, and I do the best I can to use my personal story to let others know that they are not alone and to offer advice where I can, based on my own experiences.
I’m friends with lots of other Mental Health Advocates too. We share our stories with each other and help to boost each other’s stories to share them with a wider audience and raise awareness.
Although I class myself as a Mental Health Advocate, that’s not to say I haven’t made mistakes in the process. I’ve also seen others make mistakes. That’s okay – we’re all human. But today I’m going to talk about some of those mistakes and how you can avoid making the same ones.
Mistake #1: Thinking you have to be available 24/7.
When you open yourself up to helping others, it’s important to set yourself some boundaries. You are a Mental Health Advocate, not a 24/7 crisis helpline. Unfortunately, some people will mistake your openness and willingness to discuss mental health and mental illness as an invitation to bombard you with private messages about their own personal situation. Whilst it is important to be as supportive as you can, you cannot possibly take on that responsibility on a large scale – that is what Crisis Teams or charities like Samaritans are for.
An example of setting boundaries may be switching off your DMs after a certain time in the evening or setting up an “out-of-office” automatic email response including signposts to other support services. You need time to rest and recharge – you cannot pour from an empty cup.
Mistake #2: Responding to trolls.
When we enter the world of Mental Health Advocacy, it’s almost certain we will use social media, and where there is a social media platform, there are trolls. I myself have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of trolls targeting Mental Health Advocates, including people setting up fake, anonymous Twitter accounts to send abuse, right through to people openly using their own accounts to dismiss, invalidate, or even mock those who talk about mental health.
There is a difference between unintentional ignorance and trolling. If someone responds to your social media post with something unintentionally offensive or stigmatising, it may be appropriate to challenge their point. However, when a post is clearly sent with the intention of upsetting you or someone else, it is better not to engage. Report the comment using the social media platform’s reporting procedure and block the offending account. We can waste our time arguing with trolls who are just looking to cause upset, or we can move on and focus on those who truly want to learn about the issues. I have been guilty of what is known as “feeding the trolls” before. It’s tempting every time! But for your own sanity and wellbeing, trust me – report and block.
Mistake #3: Feeling like a hypocrite if you have a bad mental health day.
Just because you are a Mental Health Advocate doesn’t mean you are immune to bad mental health days. Being a Mental Health Advocate isn’t about having all the answers, all the skills, all the coping methods; it’s about sharing what you know, what you’ve experienced, and walking alongside those who struggle in the best way we can. If you’re having a bad day with your mental health, share it. Let other advocates come alongside you in your journey. Sharing about the bad days as well as the good doesn’t make you a failure of an advocate, it makes you a genuine one.
Mistake #4: Trying to give advice on subjects we don’t know enough about.
As I mentioned in the last point, being a Mental Health Advocate doesn’t necessarily mean you know it all. I, for example, know very little about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, therefore I don’t offer advice or write pieces about it – I leave that to the advocates who have first-hand knowledge on the subject. It would be disingenuous of me to write about a subject that I have neither the lived experience nor academic knowledge of. It is for this reason that I offer space to guest-posters to tell their stories on subjects where my knowledge is lacking; firstly, so they can share the information with others who have similar experiences, and secondly, so I can learn more about it. You don’t have to know about every single aspect of every single mental illness in order to be a Mental Health Advocate; share your story, your experiences, your knowledge – that’s enough to be an advocate.
Mistake #5: Comparing yourself to others.
With some Mental Health Advocates gaining widespread popularity on social media, it’s easy to become disillusioned that your story isn’t reaching the same number of people as others. Maybe other advocates have written books, given TED talks, or run a podcast – that’s great! It’s all helping to spread mental health awareness and offer support to those who need it. That’s not to say that your contribution to the conversation isn’t just as valid, even if you “only” post on social media or run a blog. Even if you only reach one person, you’re contributing, and that’s what matters.
Being a Mental Health Advocate is hard work and it’s only natural that sometimes we’re going to get it wrong.
Like I said, we’re all human. But the point is, we’re trying. We’re trying our best to help others because we know what it’s like to suffer alone. We’re trying our best to change perceptions and misconceptions about mental illness; to encourage empathy and compassion for those struggling.
If you are a Mental Health Advocate, just know that I see you. I see you making yourself vulnerable. I see you putting yourself out there to help others. I see you.
And if you want to be a Mental Health Advocate but you’re not sure where to start, check out my previous post on How To Be A Mental Health Advocate for some tips to get you going.
Are you a Mental Health Advocate? Can you identify with any of the mistakes I highlighted? Maybe you have made your own mistakes. Tell me about it in the comments.