For many people struggling with a mental health condition, the understanding and support from others is critical to their mental health. As we honor Mental Health Awareness Month in May, let’s take a moment to understand how we can raise awareness about mental health and what you can do every day to raise your voice and advocate for your mental well-being as well as the well-being of those around you.
What is a mental health advocate?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “advocate” as “one who defends or maintains a cause or proposal” or “one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or group.” When you speak up or support a cause, you’re helping to promote awareness and you’re standing up for what the cause represents. Being a mental health advocate means that what you say and do is intentional and intended to help end the stigma around mental health and encourage others to speak up as well.
How can being a mental health advocate help reduce stigma?
When it comes to mental health, stigmas exist. The American Psychological Association defines stigma as “the negative social attitude attached to a characteristic of an individual that may be regarded as a mental, physical, or social deficiency. A stigma implies social disapproval and can lead unfairly to discrimination against and exclusion of the individual.”
Although we’ve made a lot of progress normalizing conversations around mental health, many people still approach the idea of mental health conditions or treatment with stereotypes or prejudices in mind. When we talk about mental health, the language we use or the actions we take can further those stigmas if we aren't careful. And when harmful stigmas are perpetuated, they can also have serious consequences on those experiencing a mental health condition.
In fact, a 2017 study found that internalized stigma can reduce the chance for recovery or seeking treatment at all. What’s more, a recent 2020 review found that internalized stigma can contribute to reduced hope and self-esteem, difficulties in relationships and at work, increased symptoms, and lower chance of adhering to treatment, making recovery difficult for people diagnosed with severe mental health conditions.
5 ways to practice mental health advocacy
Fortunately, there are things you can do to help end the stigma by promoting mental health awareness and normalizing mental health.
1. Support someone who needs help
If you know someone who is struggling with their mental health, be there to support them. Listen and withhold judgment. Offer resources, such as talking to a mental health professional who gets them and can help them work through their challenges. Here are a few more ways you can best support someone experiencing a mental health concern. The tips that follow can apply to anyone with a mental health concern.
Be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community
Lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults are twice as likely as heterosexual adults to experience a mental health condition, and transgender individuals are about four times as likely as cisgender individuals to experience a mental health concern. In addition, LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to report symptoms of depression or suicidal thoughts. If you know someone in the LGBTQ+ community who is struggling, actively listen and be inclusive. Here’s how you can be an ally everyday to your LGBTQ+ friends.
Speak up if someone expresses suicidal thoughts
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2020 almost 46,000 people died by suicide. In 2023, the CDC reported that teenage girls are experiencing the highest levels of violence, sadness, and suicide risk over the last ten years. If you know someone who expresses suicidal thoughts, trust your instincts and take their words seriously. Here are the warning signs and what you can do if you see them.
Listen and support someone with social anxiety
Social anxiety can affect anyone, however teens are particularly at risk. With teen social media use on the rise, teen self-esteem is at an all-time low. If your teen is struggling with social anxiety, there are ways that you can help. Learn about what social anxiety is, its symptoms and causes, and how you can support your teen’s mental health.
Be there for someone with bipolar disorder
Living with bipolar disorder can feel isolating, demanding, and unmanageable at times. Since symptoms of bipolar disorder can fluctuate, relationship challenges can occur. This may include financial, social, and emotional impacts on family, friends, and partners. Yet, the support of family and friends is crucial. Learn about the signs, symptoms, and risk factors of bipolar disorder as well as tools to help you best support your loved one living with this mental health condition.
2. Encourage dialogue with friends, family, and others about mental health
Talking about a subject that is taboo is one of the best ways to normalize it. So be open. Talk about mental health and well-being with your friends, family, and even at work.
SonderMind’s Chief Medical Officer, Doug Newton, MD, MPH shares in Psychology Today that you can normalize taking action when faced with mental health challenges. Whether it’s with a teen in your family or another family member or a friend, taking action could mean talking about mental health, seeing a therapist, or talking to your doctor. Dr. Newton also suggests that you can make mental health check-ins a regular activity with your family. Every week, make time to share a rose/bud/thorn:
- A rose is a success.
- A bud is an opportunity.
- A thorn is a challenge.
This can help open up conversations and help everyone to start talking about what’s going on in their lives. Plus, it’s a chance for you to check in on their (and your) mental health.
Mental health affects all aspects of our lives, including how we function and perform at work. That’s why it’s also important to bring up conversations about mental health with your manager or your human resources department. We understand it isn’t always easy to talk about mental health at work, so here are some tips to help you talk to your boss about mental health.
3. Speak up when someone uses language with negative mental health connotations
Words are powerful. So powerful that they can change our moods, feelings, or perceptions in an instant. How we communicate with others can impact our daily lives, especially when it comes to mental health. Being an advocate means that you start with open and honest communication, and change the way you talk about mental health. Speak up if you hear others use phrases with negative connotations that perpetuate stigma, and offer suggestions like these below:
Learn more about how you can recognize and change language to end the stigma of mental health.
4. Volunteer for a mental health non-profit
In addition to what you say, what you do can help make a difference in advocating for mental health. You can raise awareness by volunteering, joining walks, participating in fundraisers, or speaking at local events, to name a few. Check out the opportunities at these organizations — you’ll be surprised at the many ways that you can get involved in mental health advocacy.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- The Jed Foundation
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- The Trevor Project
5. Be active in your community
Being a mental health advocate means reaching out beyond your immediate friends and family. You can also be a voice in your community. Whether it’s around your local businesses, faith group, school, or work, advocating for mental health can start locally. For example, Dr. Newton in Psychology Today offers these tips on how you can advocate for mental health resources for youth:
- Talk to your schools: Just as the school nurse is important for students’ physical health and safety, so is having mental health support. Find out what your child’s school or school district is doing to support student mental well-being and ask questions about how they can better address this growing need.
- Write to your lawmakers: A report from the Commonwealth Fund finds that comprehensive programs in Ohio and Oklahoma that link young people and families with home- and community-based mental health services have been found to lower youth emergency department visits and improve health outcomes. Write to your state lawmakers or governor to ask them to consider approaching the teenage mental health crisis with this approach to care.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness also offers tips to help you be an advocate for mental health in your community.
Let’s talk about mental health
If you’re thinking “What difference will my one voice make?” — rest assured. Talking about mental health and being an advocate can make a difference in someone’s life. When you volunteer, participate in awareness events, or reach out to your community, you’re amplifying the voices of everyone who is affected by mental health challenges. So, let’s make mental health awareness a part of every month, every day, every moment of the year.
If you or someone you know is struggling, it might be time to talk to a mental health professional. SonderMind can connect you to a licensed therapist who understands your needs and works together with you to meet your goals. When you’re ready, we’re here for you.