Advocating for Mental Health – Making an Impact in 6 Small Steps

by | Nov 26, 2014 | Mental Health

Advocating for Mental Health – Making an Impact in 6 Small Steps

by | Nov 26, 2014 | Mental Health

I was lucky to be in hospital and receiving treatment for anorexia. My parents had private health insurance so there were no fees for my treatment–or so we thought. After leaving hospital, my parents were hit with an $800 bill for some sessions I had with the hospital psychologist. My parents were shocked. They certainly didn’t have a spare $800. The bill was really the icing on the cake for what was already a very difficult situation for all of us.

What hurts the most about this situation – the $800 bill – is it didn’t have to happen. It was my families’ first time navigating the mental health system and we were playing it by ear, not really knowing what to do. What if we had someone by our side who did know what to do? Having this person around could have saved us all of lot of trouble. And, luckily, such a person exists.
They’re called a Mental Health Advocate and for the 1 in 5 people who will experience mental illness each year, they could be a life-changer. I know, I know: it almost sounds as if there are Mental Health superheroes out there just dazzling people with the magic of positive thinking. There’s a bit more to it though, so stay with me.

What is a Mental Health Advocate?

Simply put: a mental health advocate is someone who gives a voice to people who don’t have one, for whatever reason. They speak on behalf of individuals and their families to assist them with exercising their rights to: be safe from harm including abuse, neglect and suicide; housing; and fundamental health and well-being.

Why Would Someone Want to be a Mental Health Advocate?

Mental illness can prevent people from holding down a job, having loving and respectful relationships, and even leaving their home. All people have the right to live free from mental illness but achieving this is tough. The person living with mental illness may not know how to access treatment or be a victim of discrimination. A mental health advocate speaks on behalf of people experiencing mental illness and their families when they are at their most vulnerable, making advocacy a worthy role that creates positive social change.

How Do I Get in on This? 6 Winning Ways to Advocacy

A lot of people refer to themselves as Mental Health Advocates. They are more or less saying that they are involved in some way with at least one of the following areas. A Mental Health Advocate can…

  1. Educate. Advocates educate the public about what mental illness is, the signs and symptoms, and how to get help. Education is aimed at reducing stigma surrounding mental illness. Listening to the story of someone who has experienced mental illness is a particularly powerful tool for reducing stigma (and is what I do!).
  2. Raise Awareness. Similar to education, but more focused on encouraging conversation and debate in the community about mental illness. Campaigns that raise awareness may focus on mental illness at work, strategies for early intervention, or the incidence of mental illness in special populations (e.g. FIFO workers).
    • First steps: Get involved as a volunteer on World Mental Health Day or support a cause in raising awareness (for example, R U OK Day raises awareness of suicide)
  3. Campaign. Advocates can exert pressure on the Government where necessary in the areas of legislation and policies relating to provision of services, employment, housing, general welfare, homelessness, and disability. Advocates can shape the public debate on these issues.
    • First steps: Write a letter to your local representative about what you think needs to be done for mental health or denounce instances where the rights of people with mental illness have not been upheld (for example, through social media)
  4. Fund-raise. Many mental health organisations are not-for-profit, which means they rely on grants or donations to continue their work. Advocates recognise the importance of mental health in their community and show their support for organisations by fund-raising. The funds raised cover research, service-delivery, administration, and to support people who are in need of help for mental health problems.
    • First steps: Sign-up for a running event and opt to raise money for an organisation of your choice. Everyday Hero is a great site that helps ordinary people support causes.
  5. Prevent. Advocates prevent mental illness by being aware of the social factors that contribute to mental illness and implementing strategies that target these factors. For example, poor physical health and diet contribute to mental illness. An advocate may start a walking group or hold regular cooking classes that focus on healthy foods. Advocates interested in prevention are good role-models for mental health, as they understand that self-care is a key factor in staying mentally healthy.
    • First steps: Get involved: set up a book club in your community or volunteer at a local cultural event.
  6. Peer Support. Advocates can be trained to support an individual living with mental illness. Peer Support workers are not trained health professionals, but a network of people who may have experienced mental illness and share a strong passion for supporting those going through a similar situation.
    • First steps: Start or help with the running of a support group in your local community or enrol in a peer-support worker course

Advocacy = Change.
There are so many different ways to be a Mental Health Advocate – education, awareness, campaigning, fund-raising – and they are all so valuable. The more we have people thinking that mental health matters, the greater the opportunity to help people who are in vulnerable situations get through them. To anyone thinking about taking a small step in advocacy, I’d say: go for it!