I’m going to get super real with whoever reads this…
I’ve been experiencing burnout regarding mental health advocacy.
It’s not what I’m advocating for that is turning me off, it’s the mental health advocacy environment online. Before I get started into why I’m feeling this way, lemme back up quite some years to when my advocacy work began…
I originally didn’t choose to be an advocate. It was my only option for survival. When I first became cognizant of my mental illness symptoms (before I knew they were due to mental illness), I tried so hard to deny them and convince myself that I was “normal”, which in my mind meant not being different from everyone else. I was in middle school and high school, the time where conformity was essential to not drawing unnecessary attention to yourself, which as a painfully shy adolescent was my goal. I just wanted to keep my head in my books, do well in color guard, and focus on working towards college. All I wanted was college, not panic attacks and feelings of unworthiness.
I reached out for help when I was at my wit’s end. Time and again I got denied. I advocated for myself by doing research and continuing to reach out. I needed to figure out what was going on with me. My feelings were legitimate (despite everyone else wanting to convince me otherwise), I just needed validation in the form of a diagnosis. Once I received my diagnoses, I felt such a relief. It was like someone finally understood what I was going through and that my experiences weren’t brought about by my own doing or because I was a “bad” person. But getting diagnosed didn’t mean my experiences with mental illness were over.
It took so much trial and error to get to where I am today. I’ve gone through several therapists, doctors, and treatments. Had to fight to get taken off certain meds because of side-effects,to get hospitalized so a doctor could switch my meds, and against the stigma of taking meds period even though my improvement while on them were noticeable I advocated for my respect within my family whenever loved ones would question whether or not I took my meds when they angered me or when they say something that stigmatizes mental illness. I will admit that I wasn’t an advocate 24/7 (it’s kind of hard to advocate for yourself when depression takes away your ability to function), but I learned I had to be the hero of my own story.
I started advocating for others when I decided to share my story – first on a Facebook video and later on by speaking at schools through my local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Through my connections with organizations, I became known for my fundraising efforts and outspokenness regarding fighting for mental health awareness and against stigma. I don’t share all that I do on social media. I had previously shared some projects I work on and am vocal about my involvement in Team Not Ashamed as one of the co-leaders, but my work for my community/city/county/etc. isn’t always broadcasted. It shouldn’t have to be. I do this because it’s the right thing to do, not for popularity or accolades. My desire for societal change is bigger than my ego. Also, this article by the wonderful Sarah Fader is eternally relevant and elaborates on my opinion.
I can’t say that all my peers in the mental health community who label themselves as “advocates” share our perspectives on pushing ego aside and it’s been bringing me down. The older I get, the more I have to remind myself of quotes from the wise Brené Brown. She once explained how she has to remind herself to expect the best from people. That people who let us down in one way or another (co-worker being late on a project, child spilling food on their clothes, etc.) aren’t purposely doing these things to screw our efforts over. Now I don’t think people do things to make my life worse, but I have to keep boundaries and block people who are not truthful or helpful.
Based on life experiences and me being a realist, I’m always slightly apprehensive to trust people to be genuine, even when it comes to advocacy. I can’t be friends with every single advocate, but I will stand beside them to fight to improve the quality of life for our community as long as they aren’t damaging the mental health of others. The latter hasn’t been frequent enough for my liking. Some advocates don’t deserve their title because they are argumentative and they have the opinions that only people with experiences/opinions similar to their own are valid. Others focus too much on their likes and followers to take care of their mental health or to do something that is actually meaningful for the mental health community. The worst (in my opinion) are those who shame peers in one way or another for being upset or triggered by things they come across.
Another hurtful thing I’ve come across is multiple people in my life (including some advocates) twisting the truth, whether by exaggerating the truth or blatantly lying (thought I consider both a breech of trust) because they want attention and sympathy. We have to stop craving sympathy and seek empathy. I can share numerous stories about situations that have occurred in my life that would make people cry, but I don’t want people to want to help my efforts because they feel bad for me. I want them to put themselves in my shoes as a human being going through tough times because of societal ignorance and lack of government support for policies and services that would help people like me. Empathy is the only way things will change, both for ourselves as individuals, the community of those of us living with mental illness as a whole, society overall.
And this brings me onto another issue I’ve had lately: people only doing their advocacy efforts online and not in society. This feeling was so evident while I was in a meeting yesterday for a mental health committee I’m on for my county. If you are capable of doing offline advocacy, please do. This is not a message to people who are currently disabled by their condition. We need you to take care of yourself and survive. But for those whose lives are more stable, we need you to take a step back from the internet to help create change. Now I will never deny how valuable the internet is, but if you’re only focusing your efforts online and not within your community, you need to read these tips…
Some ways to do offline advocacy:
Educate yourself. Be willing to listen and learn. Read up on mental health issues that do not personally affect you. If you want to advocate for others, you have to have a better understanding of the perspectives and experiences beyond your own. Read up on perspectives and experiences other than your own, especially those of people in different races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, etc. It will make you a stronger advocate and a better person.
Volunteer and raise money. It’s free to volunteer with an organization (save for the cost of getting somewhere). Raise money and awareness for efforts that create positive change for our community (I’m a broke college student and managed to raise over $1,000 in a month for my NAMI chapter by getting out there and doing work) because money=power in this day and age, especially when there is a lack of funding for mental health services/programs.
Get political. Contact your state/local government officials to educate them on the importance of taking mental health issues seriously. Pay attention to legislation (if you’re in the U.S. and need somewhere to start, NAMI has a great hub for mh legistlation updates and you can sign up for their policy newsletter). Call legislators out for not caring enough about mental health and use facts on top of personal stories to help show them the reality of what we experience. Call out friends and celebrities who stigmatize mental health issues and/or perpetuate the lie that people with mental illnesses are automatically violent.
Become certified. In most places, it’s free to get trained in adult and child Mental Health First Aid (I can guarantee it’s free if you’re in Allegheny County, PA) and it’s such an invaluable certification. You can become a crisis hotline/warm line operator if you can mentally handle it (few people are cut out for it and I know I got burnt out from being the crisis specialist for an online support group). Another way to get certified to help people (and paid) is to become a Peer Support Specialist or whatever the equivalent is in your state/area.
We have to do more than share inspirational quotes. We have to do the dirty work. You will be so glad once you start because it’s so rewarding. Now let’s get out there and change the world!