I receive a lot of e-mail, direct messages, and phone calls asking me a variety of questions. With the exception of specific questions about living with mental illness, the most asked question has to do with my advocacy work or how to become an advocate themselves. While there is no guarantee what part you can play in the advocacy world, literally anyone can become a mental health advocate by following these three easy steps.
The first step toward becoming a mental health advocate is to remove all expectations. I truly mean all expectations. Don’t expect to become the next Patrick Kennedy, Pete Earley, or even a well-read blogger like me or many others. You simply cannot know where you will fit in or how long it will take to reach any level.
If the sole reason you want to be a mental health advocate is to help people, then losing expectations is easy. Ask to help at a local consumer-operated service, fund-raise for a mental health charity, or sign up to volunteer for the suicide hotline. Doing any one of those things will make you a mental health advocate. Beyond that, you can just enjoy the journey and see where you end up.
Step Two to Becoming a Mental Health Advocate
Many people, myself included, are not satisfied just volunteering for a local mental health charity. In fact, we aren’t happy until being a mental health advocate has taken over our identity. In addition to my full-time job, I am a professional speaker, writer, and a volunteer for the cause. I work in mental health, volunteer in mental health, and use every moment to advocate on behalf of people living with mental illness. People like me.
If step one doesn’t satisfy you, then step two is the acknowledgement that you don’t want to be just a mental health advocate. You want to be a paid mental health advocate. There is nothing wrong with this. This kind of work is expensive and time consuming. It costs a lot of money to maintain this level of output. Internet, office space, and transportation costs add up. Plus, we need to eat and pay rent. It’s important to approach this as a business. It’s easy to get sucked into working for free, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, your landlord and creditors will probably not care why you don’t have money.
The Final Step to Complete Your Mental Health Advocate Transformation
The final step to completing your mental health advocacy transformation is the hardest one. Be prepared to fail. Not just fail, but fail publicly. I have often speculated that the term “epic fail” must have come from someone watching a mental health advocate at work.
When I was a young and naive advocate, I thought I could effect real and lasting change in a matter of weeks. I would just explain to people that they were wrong, enlighten them to my way of thinking, and be home in time for dinner. I have been at this for almost a decade and, while certain things have improved, we still have more work in front of us than we do behind us.
Advocacy at this level needs to be your life’s work and you must learn to celebrate the tiny victories because there is more failure on a day-to-day basis than there is success. There isn’t enough money, understanding, or education to change the minds of an entire country overnight. Brace yourself; this is a going to take a while.
Failure comes in all shapes and sizes, as well. I get e-mails telling me I am a war profiteer because I charge for services, get called names by those who cannot respectfully disagree, and a grieving mother once wrote me an e-mail that said people like me led to the suicide of her son because of my position on Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT). It is impossible not to take these things personally. The frequent failures, the suffering of those we are trying to help, and our own emotions will often overwhelm us.
The truth of the matter is that if you truly want to reach the highest levels of mental health advocacy, then you need to believe in what you are doing so deeply, so passionately, and so thoroughly that you are willing to sacrifice your own personal well-being for a chance to make a difference. If there is something inside you that makes you want to fight, you are exactly what mental health advocacy needs.
Gabe is a writer, speaker, and activist living with bipolar and anxiety disorders. Interact with him on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, or his website.
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