October 10, 2014

7 Tips for Mental Health Advocates

7 Tips for Mental Health Advocates

October 10, 2014
Ross Szabo

I started speaking about my experiences with bipolar disorder with anger control problems and psychotic features when I was 17. At that time, I knew almost every other advocate in the country. There weren't many of us. Now there are thousands. There's been an extraordinary leap in mental health advocacy over the last 19 years.

I've trained a lot of speakers with Active Minds, Minding Your Mind and the Born This Way Foundation. I've also worked with hundreds of advocates at other events. In honor of mental health awareness week I wanted to offer some tips to help advocates maintain their mental health as they do this important work.

1. Remember the advocates that came before you: I wouldn't have had half the opportunities I did in the late 90s and early 2000s if it weren't for trailblazers who started mental health advocacy from the 1900s through the 1980s. Knowing the history of this movement helps you understand how long it can take for certain aspects to change and gives you perspective on how far we've come as well as how far we need to go.

2. Live Your Message: You are in the public eye telling people to end stigma, seek help, find treatment and take care of their mental health. It's vital that you live that message as well. Sometimes it can feel so important to help others that we forget to help ourselves. Talking about mental health disorders can trigger relapses quicker than anything I've seen. Make sure you live your message and take care of yourself.

3. You Don't Need to Know Everything: A lot of advocates get catapulted into the spotlight quickly. They feel the pressure to answer the questions from people who are contemplating suicide, harming themselves and in desperate need of help. That pressure creates a dynamic in which any advocate wants to do what is right and be an expert. The best advice I ever received was from Dr. Howard Goldman. He said, "You're an expert at telling your story. Your real goal is to share your story to get people to seek help from those who are trained to help them."

4. Avoid the Child Actor Trap: I fell into mental health advocacy before I had any other jobs. Mental health advocacy defined who I was for a long time. It was difficult to feel like a person. On top of that speaking in front of large audiences, hearing the applause and getting admiration is addictive. It's common for people to become defined solely by their mental health advocacy. Try not to go through the growing pains that so many child actors have gone through. It's imperative to have something outside of this advocacy that grounds you and helps you see you're more than a mental health advocate.

5. You Are Not Alone: The rise of mental health advocacy has spurred a lot of neworganizations, speakers, authors, bloggers and experts. Collaborate with others every chance you get. If you're worried about yourself or not doing well, then reach out to people in the community and build a network of support. We're much stronger together than we are alone.

6. Stay Present: Sharing your story, talking about difficult emotions and hearing about other people's lives can wear you down. At some point a lot of advocates start going through the motions to protect themselves. If you start going through the motions in your advocacy life, then it's possible to start going through the motions in every area of your life. Try to feel all of the emotions, allow yourself space to process them and again take care of yourself.

7. Take a Break: One of the best things I've ever done for my mental health advocacy was to leave it completely. I joined the Peace Corps 14 years into my advocacy. That break allowed me to explore myself more and let me experience something completely different. Mental health advocacy can be tiring. The emotions from everyone else and your own experiences can burn you out. Take a break if you need to.

These are 7 tips that are important to me. Let me know the tips I missed or the ones that are most important to you!

Have a story about depression that you'd like to share? Email strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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