In the years I’ve lived with high-functioning depression and anxiety, one thing I’ve come to recognize — both in myself and others who’ve had similar experiences — is a sort of calling to share our stories and insights to try and help anyone else going through the same thing.
I’ve become part of a few different networks of people just like me, who have in many ways overcome the worst parts of our mental health challenges and are now doing advocacy work both within the healthcare system and as a complement to it.
Yet, we still struggle.
Doing this type of work and helping to support people who don’t have proper help or support (for whatever reasons) is very energy-intensive.
There’s been a growing shift to bring more people with lived experience into projects like this, because there’s so much value in having someone who truly understands what it’s like, including the needs, the perspective, the language, and everything that can make or break a new initiative, campaign, or technology.
We’re often working with limited resources, fighting for a proper seat at the table, or trying to balance our own self-care and lives among the demanding nature of work in the mental health space. That said, the work can be incredibly meaningful, and the challenges only illustrate why it’s so important to get involved.
Being in this position myself for almost a decade now, I wanted to explore a few key lessons I’ve learned — both good and bad — as a mental health advocate.
We always need more advocates
Right now, it feels like there could never be too many people raising awareness and helping to support others who are struggling or confused about their mental health. As we still work to break and erase the stigma, we need all hands on deck.
I see and hear stories every day of people who are judged unfairly, penalized by their loved ones or employers, or afraid to speak up and get help for various reasons.
The great thing, though, is that the positive stories of people who do speak up and get the professional help and support from friends they need, far outweigh the negative ones.
There are still growing pains, though, and that’s where you can come in. Reach out to people in your circles or those around you who may be struggling. Be the advocate you wish you had back then.
Did you just want someone to be there and actively listen to what you were going through? Or perhaps you needed someone to help guide you toward getting professional help?
Whatever it is you struggled with at the time, you have the ability to flip the script and be that person for another person — maybe even hundreds of people over the years. There’s a massive opportunity for each of us to make waves with our simple words and actions on a daily basis.
Be true to who you are
It’s easy to get caught up in other people’s narratives and dreams without even knowing it. I didn’t think I would be drawn to build a massive network. But I did.
In building The One Project to teach people how photography can be a cathartic way to express yourself around mental health, I realized that my vision for it no longer aligned with what I actually wanted, or how I saw my life going.
Honestly, I don’t want to manage a huge company. I’m an artist.
So, I took a step back to figure out how to continue growing our impact while still focusing on what I can do best and what I want to do.
Find that for yourself.
If you’re great with people, especially face-to-face interactions, and love organizing events, maybe a weekly support group makes sense for you. If you love writing, maybe it’s a blog or book. If you’re a nerd (in the best sense) for politics and are driven, maybe your best bet is to help advocate and push for better legislation or funding for mental health. We need it all!
Only you can figure it out, and I hope you do before jumping into something too quickly.
Be careful not to lose yourself or burn out
I talked about this in a previous post around identity and depression. In my experience, work or projects that spawn from your passion for mental health can take over your identity and, in fact, even your whole life if you aren’t careful. It happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen many times with others.
This work is tough. It’s draining.
The most important lesson (and one of the hardest to let sink in) is that we can’t do it alone, and we can’t do it well without properly taking care of ourselves first.
Constantly absorbing others’ struggles on top of what’s going on in your own life is a lot to deal with, so it’s critical to have your self-care routines in place and regularly scheduled.
I urge you to make sure you put your own self-care first when it comes to the advocacy work that you do. Instead of taking on their struggles, help direct people to the proper resources and systems available, especially when it comes to professional help from a therapist, doctor, or other mental health professional.
That last point is the most important when it comes to ensuring that you’re being responsible with your energy and efforts to help others. Your experiences, support, and advice can be helpful and endlessly valuable for others, but it is not a replacement for professional help or medical advice.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely interested in or passionate about helping to bring about change in regard to mental health, how we talk about it, and how we get help to those who need it.
I encourage you to consider taking action and becoming an advocate or maybe being more mindful about the work you’re already doing, both for yourself and others.
Together, we have incredible power to change things for the better.
For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.
DEPR-US-NP-00059 APRIL 2019